40,000 Years in Spanish Prison?

The Madrid bomber sentences, explained.

Jamal Zougam

Spain’s National Court convicted 21 people for crimes related to the 2004 Madrid train bombings on Wednesday, including three men who were found guilty of mass murder and attempted murder. The three were each sentenced to between 34,000 and 43,000 years in jail. How did the court come up with that penalty?

They accounted for all of the victims. Spain’s maximum sentence for murder is normally 15 to 20 years, but that can go up to 30 years if the murder was part of a terrorist act. Two of the three, Otman el-Gnaoui and Jamal Zougam, were given 30 years for each of the 191 people killed, or 5,730 years total. They also got 20 years for each of the 1,856 people injured, which added 37,120 years; related charges like “terrorist carnage” tacked on even more time.

Despite the big numbers, none of the terrorists will serve more than 40 years behind bars, since that is the maximum imprisonment allowed by Spanish law. This punishment may seem light when compared with punishment in the United States, where one can be sentenced to death or life imprisonment without parole. In Spain, the 40-year limit applies only to cases involving terrorism; otherwise, the maximum is usually 30 years.

So, why bother with a 40,000-year sentence when the terrorist will be locked up for just 0.1 percent of that time? To express rage and condemn the crime. In the United States, a judge might impose multiple, consecutive life sentences to make sure a felon has no chance at parole. Prisoners in Europe are usually eligible for parole after serving about one-third of their sentences, and there’s some form of mandatory parole after they’ve completed two-thirds. From that perspective, there’s a big difference between a sentence of 40 years and 40,000. In Spain, however, it’s a moot point: Automatic parole rules don’t apply to convicted terrorists.

European courts rarely hand down what they call “life sentences”; when they do, maximum-imprisonment policies often prevent a person from spending his natural life in prison. A life sentence in Germany, for example, is closer to 15 years in jail. Countries may impose longer mandatory sentences in cases of terrorism; last week, a French court sentenced a man to life in prison, with a minimum of 22 years behind bars for his role in the 1995 bomb attacks on the Paris Metro.

Spain’s penal policies are relatively severe, by Continental standards, as a result of the country’s experience with Basque terrorists. Specific cases contributed to the toughening of the rules: For example, a Basque commando originally sentenced to 3,000 years in prison was scheduled for release in 2004, just a decade and a half into his term. The Spanish Supreme Court has also deprived convicted terrorists of the right to die at home instead of in jail. Other sick prisoners can be paroled or serve their time at home.

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Explainer thanks Nuno Garoupa of University of Illinois College of Law and James Whitman of Yale.