MADRID -- A Syrian-born businessman was sentenced to 27 years in prison yesterday after being convicted of leading a terrorist cell and conspiring to commit murder in the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. But he was cleared of a more serious charge in Europe's biggest trial of suspected Al Qaeda members.
Another man accused of helping one of the hijackers set up a key meeting was acquitted of being an accessory to murder but was convicted of collaborating with a terrorist group. Sixteen other people were convicted of collaborating with or belonging to the terrorist cell.
A third suspect facing specific Sept. 11 charges over detailed video he shot of the World Trade Center and other US landmarks was cleared of all charges.
The three main suspects -- Imad Yarkas, Ghasoub al-Abrash Ghalyoun, and Driss Chebli -- were charged as accessories to murder and could have faced sentences of more than 74,000 years each -- 25 for each of the 2,973 people killed in the terrorist attacks on the United States.
The prosecutor, Pedro Rubira, had asked for what he called ''exemplary sentences" to show terrorism could be fought in court, not with Guantanamo-style detention camps.
Yarkas led a cell that raised money and recruited men for Osama bin Laden's terrorist group and ''turned itself over completely to fulfilling the sinister designs decided by Al Qaeda," according to the three-judge panel of the National Court.
But it said, ''the only thing proven is Yarkas's conspiracy with the suicide terrorist" Mohamed Atta and other members of the Al Qaeda cell based in Hamburg that carried out the Sept. 11 attacks.
Twenty-one other people also stood trial, but on charges not directly related to the attacks. Of those, 16 were convicted of belonging to or collaborating with a terrorist organization and five were acquitted.
One of the 16 was Tayssir Alouni, a correspondent for the Arab television network Al-Jazeera. He was convicted of collaboration and sentenced to seven years in jail.
''It was a black day in the history of Spanish justice," Al-Jazeera news editor Ahmed al-Sheik said, adding that the verdict would be appealed.
Alouni, a Syrian with Spanish citizenship, interviewed bin Laden shortly after 9/11. He pleaded not guilty and denied belonging to Al Qaeda.
Yarkas's lawyer, Jacobo Teijelo, said it was absurd for the judges to convict his client of conspiracy because that charge would apply to a crime that was not committed.
He said the judges, acting on what he called flimsy evidence such as wiretapped telephone conversations that they themselves said were at times obtained improperly, were desperate for any conviction against Yarkas, given their lack of evidence for a murder conviction.
But, he said, he was leaning against filing an appeal because it might be futile.
Jose Luis San Pio, whose 26-year-old daughter Silvia was the only Spaniard killed in the attacks, called the verdict a surprise, saying he had expected harsher sentences.
The verdicts capped a 10-year investigation into Islamic militancy in Spain. After the attacks in 2001, Spanish police suspected many men they had been monitoring were involved. Judge Baltasar Garzon started making arrests two months after the attacks.
Investigators said Al Qaeda had deep roots in Spain and had operated freely because poorly equipped police were focused more on the armed Basque separatist group ETA.
But Al Qaeda's presence became painfully clear when Spain became a target with the March 11, 2004, bombings in Madrid that killed 191 people and were claimed by militants who said they acted on the terrorist group's behalf in revenge for the presence of Spanish troops in Iraq.
The probe into the Madrid attack was separate from the one that led to yesterday's verdicts, but investigators said the suspects overlap, with Yarkas having acted as mentor to some of those blamed for the Madrid bombings.
Yarkas had been accused of arranging a meeting in the Tarragona region of Spain in July 2001 at which key Sept. 11 plotters -- Atta and alleged coordinator Ramzi Binalshibh -- met to decide last-minute details, including the date of the attacks.
Chebli, a Moroccan, also was alleged to have helped set up the meeting. He was acquitted of being an accessory to murder but convicted of collaborating with a terrorist group and sentenced to six years.
Ghalyoun, a Syrian-born Spaniard who was indicted over the video he shot during a trip to New York and several other US cities in 1997, was acquitted of being an accessory to murder and of being a member of a terrorist organization.
Garzon had said the videotapes were passed on to Al Qaeda and amounted to the beginning of planning for the attacks. Ghalyoun said he shot the tapes as an innocent tourist.