Defense attorneys on Tuesday questioned the existence of an Italy-based terrorist cell headed by an alleged ringleader of the 2004 Madrid bombings at the start of the man's trial on charges of international terrorism and plotting another attack. Luca D'Auria, the court-appointed attorney for Rabei Osman Sayed Ahmed, made a series of technical objections to prosecutors' claims that the cell headed by the Egyptian was planning another attack in an unspecified location.
The judge rejected D'Auria's objections, but did agree to a defense request that independent court experts review translations of wiretapped conversations between Ahmed and others to check their veracity.
Handcuffed and dressed in white robes and a skullcap, Ahmed listened to the proceedings, occasionally through an interpreter, and read a small book inside a cage in the courtroom.
Italian police acting on a tip from their Spanish counterparts arrested Ahmed in Milan three months after the Madrid attacks. He is accused of recruiting extremists as the head of an Italy-based terrorist cell.
Spanish and Italian authorities consider the 34-year-old Egyptian a mastermind of the Madrid train bombings that killed 191 people and injured more than 1,500 nearly two years ago.
Ahmed has maintained his innocence and denied belonging to a terrorist group.
He has denied he is the person speaking in intercepted conversations that Italian police say prove his role in the attacks and show that Ahmed was indoctrinating militants for suicide bomb missions in Iraq and elsewhere.
Italian police said in a report summarizing the investigation that Ahmed was also trying "to construct cells at a European level in order to carry out terrorist actions on the model of Madrid."
Also standing trial is 22-year-old Egyptian Yahia Ragheh, picked up in the same operation as Ahmed and described by authorities as a would-be suicide bomber. He too appeared in court. The trial began two hours late because Ahmed's attorney did not show up. Judge Luigi Cerqua appointed D'Auria, who had been part of Ragheh's legal team, to represent Ahmed instead.
At the start of the hearing, D'Auria questioned the prosecutors' claim that a terrorist cell even existed in Milan.
"How can I tell if he belonged to the cell or not, if the cell has not even been identified?" he asked.
Prosecutor Maurizio Romanelli responded that the cell indeed existed and had as its specific aim "the commissioning of attacks in Europe and in other parts of the world."
He said the members of the cell, including suspects in Belgium, France and the Netherlands, "have names, last names, addresses and roles."
The judge allowed all but one piece of evidence submitted by prosecutors, including phone interceptions, Arabic-language documents downloaded from Ahmed's computer, photos of his Milan apartment as well as evidence from Spanish and Belgian authorities.
Ahmed was arrested in a Europe-wide operation that also saw 15 suspected Islamic militants detained in Belgium and the Netherlands.
He has been linked by prosecutors to terrorist cells across Europe. Both Ahmed and Ragheh are accused of subversive association aimed at international terrorism, a charge introduced after the Sept. 11 attacks in the United States as Italy stepped up its efforts against terrorist suspects.
Investigators traced his movements in the years before the Madrid attacks in countries including Spain, France, Germany and Italy, and have detailed his frequent contact with Islamic extremists.
Ahmed was extradited to Spain for four months where he was questioned on the Madrid attacks by Spanish officials, and returned to Italy last April. Spanish judge Juan del Olmo has filed provisional mass murder and terrorism charges against him, though Ahmed has not been indicted in Spain. Ragheh's lawyer Ligotti said Ahmed faces a maximum sentence of 15 years in prison if convicted.
The maximum sentence for Ragheh, accused of participating in the terror cell, would be five to 10 years, reports the AP.
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