/ 11 May 2006

Inmates speak of life in Morocco prison

”This is Omar Maarouf calling from Kenitra Central Prison,” said the dejected voice on the other end of the line.

The bizarre phone call was the second in two days from a prisoner inside the high-walled Kenitra, one of Morocco’s most notorious lockups. It holds several death row inmates like Maarouf, who the government links to violent Islamic groups.

Fellow prisoner Abdelkebir Goumarra, serving a life sentence at Kenitra, called a day earlier, also without notice.

More disturbing than receiving such calls was the idea that high security prisoners were able to use cellphones at one of the country’s most restrictive prisons.

But Goumarra said the 80 high security prisoners at Kenitra mingle with other inmates, so he borrowed a cellphone. He got this reporter’s number from his wife, who had been interviewed earlier.

Goumarra, a Moroccan, and Maarouf, who has dual Danish-Moroccan citizenship, are accused of belonging to Salafiya Jihadiya, the name used by the government for the Islamic group blamed for the May 2003 suicide bombings in Casablanca that killed 33 people. Up to 3 000 people were arrested after the blasts.

Maarouf was already in prison in connection with attacks carried out before the Casablanca blasts. He was sentenced to death three months after the Casablanca blasts. Islamic radicals are seeking to overthrow Morocco’s monarchy and replace it with Islamic rule.

Goumarra (36) surrendered to police four days after the bombings, after a warrant was issued and his picture appeared on television.

The men said in separate telephone interviews last week that they were innocent. Their only crime, they said, was having beards, wearing long robes that fall above the ankle typically worn by Taliban militants in Afghanistan, and praying in mosques.

”Maybe they found my number on one of the militants?” speculated Maarouf, adding that he is related to an imprisoned Islamic radical.

Human rights groups say many of those arrested for the Casablanca bombings had no connection to it.

Philip Luther of the London-based Amnesty International said the trials — especially those in the summer of 2003 — were conducted at breakneck speed. Defence lawyers complained they were not allowed to present witnesses and of government interference.

But Mohammed Lididi, a senior official at the Justice Ministry, said there was no mistake. ”You will never find anyone in prison who will confess to his guilt. They all claim they are innocent.”

Lididi said prisoners are not allowed cellphones, but ”like any prison in the world, things do get smuggled into prison, including cellphones and drugs”.

He said Morocco enjoyed an independent and just judiciary.

On the phone, the men described ordeals that were brutal and unexpected.

Goumarra said after he surrendered he was handcuffed, blindfolded and a sack placed on his head. He was held in secret detention, where he was ”physically and psychologically tortured for seven days and nights”, he said.

He was stripped of his clothes, made to sit on a Coke bottle and tortured ”in sensitive areas of the body,” he said. Interrogators also put his head in water and burned cigarettes on his body, he said.

Human rights groups say prisoners are routinely held in secret detentions and subjected to mistreatment — and sometime torture — while under interrogation in Morocco.

Later, in Casablanca, Goumarra said he was made to sign a document even though he cannot read.

Left behind were two of Goumarra’s three wives with their five children in the house he built in Sidi Taibi, a shantytown south of Kenitra. A third wife lives in the capital’s twin city, Sale, with her three-year-old twin sons.

”I don’t know what my man has done. If he killed, why don’t they tell me who?” asked Fatiha Rahmouni (30) Goumarra’s second wife, revealing only her brown eyes through a slit in a black veil covering her face. Unlike the Islamic radicals who trained in Afghanistan or studied in radical religious schools in Pakistan, her husband has never left Morocco, she said.

Maarouf, whose wife and four children live in Denmark, was linked in 1998 by Belgian police to the extremist Algerian Armed Islamic Group.

Maarouf said he was ”kidnapped” by Moroccan police in early 2003 as he arrived from Europe and was taken to a detention centre in Tamara, south of Rabat.

In July 2003, he was sentenced to death. The Danish government has protested, but Morocco does not recognise dual nationality and considers Maarouf a Moroccan.

In the telephone interview, Maarouf introduced himself as the media representative of 56 Kenitra prisoners accused of belonging to the Salafiya Jihadiya. He said he issues statements to the Moroccan media via telephone or through prisoners’ families.

He said he also was among 57 prisoners who began a hunger strike on May 2, demanding their cases be reopened because they had been fabricated.

”Everyone knows they were doing it under American pressures,” said Goumarra, who said he is also refusing to eat.

”We’ve asked our families to bring us [burial] shrouds. We will either leave jail alive or in shrouds,” said Maarouf. The wives of the prisoners plan a sit-down strike outside the prison on May 16, the anniversary of the Casablanca bombings, said Rahmouni.

Asked how he passes the time, Maarouf, said: ”What can I tell you sister? There’s only despair in prison.”

Prisons in Morocco are often overcrowded, and there are 1 700 men at Kenitra. Former inmates say the prison, with its high yellow stone walls and four towers, is cold all year round.

While 20 men are on death row, Morocco has not carried out an execution since 1993.

”I wish they would relieve me,” said Maarouf, referring to his execution.

Then he added: ”But we are optimistic. We expect a happy outcome. The government made many mistakes. It rushed into things. It turned into a theatre.”

”Regarding execution, they don’t carry out death sentences in Morocco. They are now waiting …. ”

The line went dead. – AFP