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Spain’s ‘trial of the century’ live on internet

Spain’s ‘trial of the century’ live on internet
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First Published: Mon, Feb 19 2007. 06 46 PM IST
Updated: Mon, Feb 19 2007. 06 46 PM IST
By DOREEN CARVAJAL
MADRID: On the opening day of Spain's trial of 29 men accused in the deadly Madrid train bombings, police officers ringed the maximum-security brick courtroom, while a helicopter whirled overhead.
But with the click of a computer mouse, anyone can peek inside the inner sanctum for a glimpse of Spanish judges in black robes with white lace cuffs facing suspects barricaded behind bulletproof glass.
That YouTube-style window has been opened by a high-technology legal services company, Datadiar, which is streaming live coverage of the trial on its Web site, datadiar.com, and posting archived video testimony that began with the appearance on Thursday of the first suspect, Rabei Osman Sayed Ahmed, known as Muhammad the Egyptian
Datadiar has struck an alliance with the tribunal, the Audiencia Nacional, which has opened the courtroom wide to cameras. Four are posted at various angles in the court, and a fifth shows documents presented as evidence.
Forty-three microphones are scattered among the tables of the lawyers, and recordings are stored on DVDs.
With that fly-on-the-wall technology, Datadiar, a 10-year-old company on the outskirts of Madrid, is offering a courtroom version of C-Span, the American cable channel that covers government proceedings without commentary. The rare running view of what stands to be a legal marathon is of keen interest to a nation still haunted by questions about who set off the bombs on March 11, 2004, killing 191 and wounding nearly 2,000 on four commuter trains.
Cristina Cortijo, a Datadiar manager and the wife of its founder, Jose Manuel Diaz-Arias, said: "We believe this issue is a very important one in the world, and people are looking at us. It's critical that people know that our company is doing this objectively with real-time transmissions and no cuts. And it's for free."
Datadiar is not being paid by the government to stream the trial, according to Cortijo, who said permission was granted by the presiding judge in the case, Javier Gomez Bermudez.
In court, the judge strikes a brisk, no-nonsense manner with the lawyers, suspects and Arabic translators, but he seems comfortable and conscious of the informal jury of the public. He is an author of a new manual for legal journalism, "Lifting the Veil," and he regularly strides into the press room to take brief questions from an overflow crowd of journalists who are covering the case in an adjoining area by watching giant plasma TV screens.
In a brief interview during a trial break, Gomez Bermudez said the national court chose to open the bombing trial to broad viewing because "there are so many victims, and they can't all fit in here."
Critics of live courtroom coverage often cite the O.J. Simpson murder trial in California as an example of how a constant camera presence can turn a legal proceeding into a media circus.
But Gomez Bermudez scoffed at the idea that such coverage might influence the trial, and said that Spanish courts had been receptive to cameras for some time.
A verdict in the train-bombing case is not expected until October, after the testimony of more 100 experts and 600 witnesses. There are also nearly 90,000 pages of documents, some which will be instantly accessible to the public through Datadiar.
The company's usual audience consists of members of the Spanish professional class: judges, lawyers and accountants who pay more than $2,500 a year for a subscription to Globalius, a Datadiar database of legal information made available on a portable flash drive.
But with the start of the trial, Datadiar's commercial director, Rosa Martinez Casas, said the company was beginning to reach a global audience.
To maintain its neutrality, Datadiar has avoided creating chat forums in connection with the legal issues that it is raising. The site does offer a series of primers to explain elements of the legal process, like the concept of the presumption of innocence. It also has a seating diagram of the courtroom and the 46 defense lawyers, prosecutors and translators.
In the last 10 years, investors have plowed more than $65 million into the company, which did not break even until 2003. It is now earning a profit, Cortijo said.
So far, Datadiar has not sought advertising for the legal information it is offering on its portal, but that is an alternative under discussion, she said, in addition to the company's subscription model, for creating similar court coverage in other countries.
Cortijo said it was too early to calculate how much it would cost Datadiar to offer the free streaming video online, although she said that new technology had helped reduce costs.
"It may be difficult to understand why we do this for free," she said. "We are objective. We are in the middle. We are only lawyers and professionals, and offering information. It's not like television."
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First Published: Mon, Feb 19 2007. 06 46 PM IST
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