/ 28 July 2009

Moroccan court jails militant gang leader for life

A Moroccan court sentenced the leader of an Islamic extremist cell to life in prison on Tuesday for forming a criminal gang with the aim of carrying out terrorist attacks and murder.

Abdelkader Belliraj (50) was also found guilty of holding illegal weapons and explosives, harming the security of the state and theft.

The state prosecutor had demanded the death sentence against Belliraj, a Moroccan-born Belgian national who denied the charges against him.

The Moroccan security services also say Belliraj was the author of six assassinations in Belgium between 1986 and 1989, cases which the Belgian police failed to solve.

More than 30 suspected members of his gang, who had been held in prison since their arrest early in 2008, received prison sentences ranging from two to 30 years.

Leading Islamist political figures Mustapha Moatassim, Mohammed Amine Ragala and Mohamed Merouani were given prison sentences of 25 years each.

The government said the gang posed an unusually potent threat to the kingdom because they had planned to infiltrate state institutions, political parties and civil society.

Those arrested included schoolteachers, a telecoms engineer, a hotel manager in the tourist city of Marrakesh and a TV reporter.

”These verdicts are extremely severe and the accusations against the defendants were baseless,” Sakina Kada, wife of TV journalist Abdelhafid Sriti who was jailed for 20 years, told Reuters Television outside the court.

”They did not have any tangible proof against any of the 35 people accused in the case.”

Interior Minister Chakib Benmoussa said last year the group had established a political party as a cover for its militant activities.

He said Belliraj had been active since the 1970s in trying to undermine the secular-leaning Moroccan monarchy.

Belliraj had links with al-Qaeda, and was planning to attack government ministers, senior army officers and Moroccan Jews. His gang had carried out a series of hold-ups to fund its activities, Benmoussa said.

”We cannot argue with the court’s decision, but it was only the first stage in this trial and we still have to go to the appeal court,” said Belliraj’s lawyer Toufiq Idrissi.

”What we expect is that this court will be more fair, take [the accused’s] conditions into consideration and base its verdict on concrete and proven facts.”

Lawyers for the Belliraj group complained after the men’s arrest that court officials refused to show them evidence about the accused. They said the government had infringed their rights by revealing secrets about the investigation. — Reuters