Ramblas terror attacks: time for justice

Three to stand trial at Spain's High Court, which does not accuse them of murder

Pau Esparch
3 min
Judici dels atemptats del 17-A

BarcelonaLogic would say that the trial of the August 2017 terrorist attacks in Barcelona and Cambrils would revolve around the 16 murders that were committed three summers ago. But Spain's High Court does not agree. On Tuesday it will begin to judge the three accused only for belonging to or collaborating with the Ripoll cell, the manufacture of explosives and the attempt to cause great damage. The court does not want to attribute the murders to them: for the moment it has ruled out prosecuting them for this crime, a view it shares with the Public Prosecutor's Office and the accusations of both the Generalitat and the Barcelona City Council. The victims, however, do not understand.

The six terrorists who acted in the Rambla, the Zona Universitària de Barcelona and the Passeig Marítim de Cambrils are dead. All of them were killed by the police. The Imam of Ripoll and another member of the group were also killed in the explosion at the chalet in Alcanar. Those who will sit in the dock from this week are Driss Oukabir, who is said to have backed out at the last moment, Mohamed Houli Chemlal, who was injured in Alcanar, and Saïd ben Iazza, who is said to have facilitated the purchase of explosives. A priori none of the three will have to answer for the murders or for the 140 wounded.

This debate has already come out of the pre-trial phase of the case and will now be one of the focuses of the trial. The 11-M Association and the Attention and Assessment Unit for those Affected by Terrorism (UAVAT) represent the bulk of the victims of the August 2017 attacks and have put fowrard their own accusations. They have always demanded and maintained that two of the accused, Oukabir and Houli, be tried for the murders. This view is shared by the Catalan police union USPAC, which represents the agents who intervened during the attacks, and the private prosecution of the parents of the Rubi child killed on the Rambla, as well as the Association of Victims of Terrorism (AVT), which is the other popular prosecution. The Cambrils Town Council, unlike the Generalitat and Barcelona council, also includes the crime of murder.

Time to solve the unknowns

The various accusations calling for Oukabir and Houli to be tried for the murders will continue through to the end of the trial. This will not be the only battle with Judge Alfonso Guevara, who is the president of the third section of the Audiencia Nacional and who will conduct the sessions. At some points they will want to open up the doubts that have been left unresolved by the investigation. The outstanding question is the relationship between the Imam of Ripoll Abdelbaki Es-Satty and Spanish Intelligence Services, which has not been publicly clarified until now. The case files assert Intelligence and police officers had visited the imam in Castellón prison. It also states that Es-Satty is said to have confessed that he was talking to the Spanish secret services to an imam in Belgium, whom he contacted in 2016.

But it is difficult to think that the trial will explain whether Es-Satty was a confidant of the intelligence services when he planned the attack because, apart from this imam from Belgium, the other witnesses who could provide answers will not testify, such as the former secretary of state for security, José Antonio Nieto, who had even been asked to testify as a defendant, or the former director of the Centre for Intelligence against Terrorism and Organised Crime (Citco), José Luis Olivera. It does not help that the Spanish Congress has refused to set up an investigation committee.

Another of the questions they could answer is whether the fact that Spain's breach of EU rules on controls of material for making explosives, which earnt it a reprimand in August 2017, made it easier for terrorists to buy this material and for the Ripoll cell not to be detected. Nor have the group's international connections been identified, nor their relation to trips made by the cell members. These are links that would make it possible to determine whether they had contact with combatants from the Islamic state and to what extent Es-Satty is the mastermind or intellectual author of the attacks.

The two detainees who were released

The trial has to last until after Christmas and into the new year. A few weeks in which the three defendants and about 200 witnesses will be heard. Most of them are police officers - basically from the Catalan police - who participated in the investigation. There will also be the two men arrested after the attacks who were later released, as the police ruled out that they were part of the cell. The first is Mohamed Aalla, brother of one of the terrorists killed in Cambrils and another killed in the Alcanar explosion, who was the owner of the car used in the attack on the Passeig Marítim. The second is Salh el Karib, owner of a call centre where the group had bought plane flights. Other witnesses are members of the Muslim community in Ripoll and people who knew the terrorists.