/ 13 July 2006

Morocco’s war against terror prompts charges of torture

When a fellow Moroccan asked Mohamed to drive him from Bilbao, Spain to Barcelona, Mohamed was happy to oblige.

Two months later Mohamed was awakened by a heavy knock at his door. Police hauled him to Madrid, where he was accused of being an Islamic terrorist and of owning weapons. He spent 10 months in Spanish jails, then four more in Morocco, before charges were dropped in March.

Mohamed’s passenger had been a suspected terrorist watched by Spanish and Moroccan police, and that was enough to cast suspicion on Mohamed, too.

Mohamed — who refused to give his surname for fear of further trouble with police — is one of hundreds of people who rights groups claim have been unjustly swept up in a widening Moroccan anti-terror campaign that has involved more than a thousand arrests and alleged torture.

Morocco was jolted into action against Islamic terrorism in 2003 when suicide bombers killed 33 people and themselves in Casablanca, the country’s boisterous commercial capital.

While most Moroccans espouse moderate Islam, experts say terrorism remains a real threat because of al-Qaeda-affiliated networks and an explosive combination of poverty and fringe Islamic strains that encourage violence. American authorities believe that Moroccan security services have thwarted several suicide bombings recently.

”The [terrorist] current is marginal, but marginality doesn’t prevent recourse to violence,” explained Mohamed Darif, an expert in Islamist movements at Morocco’s Mohammedia University. Despite the numerous arrests and dismantled terror cells, ”these are structures that regenerate”.

But human rights groups allege that Moroccan authorities’ aggressive crackdown on suspected terrorists has led to massive abuses — including the torture of innocents.

The torture allegations appear to be having some effect. Judges have recently begun postponing trials to consider defendants’ torture claims, while Parliament passed a law in October 2005 outlawing torture and stipulating long prison terms for it. Morocco has also recognised the competence of the United Nations Committee against Torture to investigate complaints.

Communications Minister Nabil Benabdallah admitted that the government has publicly recognised nine cases of police torture.

”That’s why we’re enacting the new law,” he told the Associated Press.

Benabdallah insisted that nearly all terror suspects were guilty but said it was possible that ”sometimes … people are arrested who aren’t complicit [in terrorism]”.

The total number of arrests is disputed. Official figures obtained by AP state that 1 151 Moroccans have been arrested on terror charges since the Casablanca blasts, with 977 convicted and the rest awaiting judgments. But human rights groups and the United States State Department believe the real number of arrests is closer to 3 000.

Suspects may wait up to a year for their trials to begin, and another seven or eight months for a verdict, said Abdurrahim Mouhtad, president of An-Naseer, a support group for terror suspects.

Mohamed’s life has been in limbo since his release.

”They’ve still got my passport and until I get it back, I can’t return to my family in Spain,” he said.

He had been living with his wife and children in Bilbao, working as a craftsman on a residency visa, when he got the call asking for a ride to Barcelona. He said he agreed because he was one of the few people in the Moroccan community to own a car — and had no idea his passenger was under investigation for terrorism.

”Every day there are more arrests,” said Mouhtad. ”The majority of Islamists are arrested because they knew someone, or because they attended a sermon in a mosque. Those who are actually involved in something illegal are minimal.”

The country has been an active ally in the US-led war on terror since the September 11 attacks, holding terror suspects at a detention centre in Temara, near the Moroccan capital, Rabat.

One woman, Touria Chtoubi, said her brothers Mohamed and Kamal were tortured and forced to sign confessions at the prison after their arrests in 2002 for visiting Taliban-controlled Afghanistan.

In a 2004 report, Amnesty International alleged that authorities have beaten detainees at Temara, shocked them with electricity, plunged their heads into water, and sexually assaulted them.

The charges have raised fears that Morocco under King Mohammed VI has not turned its back on the brutality common under his father Hassan II, who died in 1999.

Despite the creation in 2004 of an Equity and Reconciliation Commission to investigate past disappearances and arbitrary detentions, ”human rights violations continue”, said Mohamed Sektaoui, head of Amnesty International’s Moroccan branch.

The human rights watchdog and others allege terror suspects held by the US have been flown to Morocco for interrogation and torture. Morocco firmly denies the claim. Washington likewise denies taking part in such so-called extraordinary renditions.

Moroccan authorities are equally worried by Moroccans’ involvement in terrorist activities abroad, notably the March 2004 train bombings in Madrid.

Spanish authorities blame the attacks on the Europe-based Moroccan Islamic Combatant Group. Founded in 1997 by Moroccan veterans of jihad training camps in Afghanistan, the group acts as ”al-Qaeda’s executive instrument in Europe and Morocco,” said Darif.

More recently, Moroccans have begun to appear — with Tunisians and Mauritanians — in the ranks of neighbouring Algeria’s Salafist Group for Call and Combat, North Africa’s foremost terrorist organisation.

The group, known by its French acronym GSPC and also linked to al-Qaeda, has battled Algerian authorities since the late 1990s in a messy coda to the country’s decade-long civil war.

”There’s an attempt to unite the North African [jihadis] in a single organisation” and then send them to Iraq, Darif said.

Morocco may be undermining its effort to smother Islamic terrorism, as the spectacle of mass arrests and police heavy handedness fuels jihadists’ call-to-arms against what they see as a tyrannical regime.

”Many people who get out of prison continue to suffer because they’ve lost their jobs,” explained Mouhtad, adding that their families have often already sunk into poverty.

Others lose it all at the moment of arrest. ”When the police come to your house in the night, they take everything,” said Chtoubi. ”Many people have lost their papers, their money, everything.” — Sapa-AP