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Sirocco in the Kingdom of Morocco

Sirocco in the Kingdom of Morocco

By Tarek Cherkaoui

 Sirocco: A hot humid south or southeast wind of the Mediterranean islands, originating in the Sahara Desert as a dry dusty wind.


The 16th of May 2005 was a day of mourning throughout Morocco. Two years ago, bombings blasted Casablanca killing 45 people, including the 12 assailants. The targets included a hotel, two restaurants, and a cemetery.

Casablanca bombing, May 17 2003.

In the past Terrorist acts have been rare in Morocco. Where terrorist acts have occurred, outsiders have usually been implicated. For instance the 1996 bombing of Hotel Atlas Asni in Marrakech was perpetrated by a Moroccan group based in France but closely associated with the Algerian secret services. It was rapidly determined that the act was a message from the Algerian regime as a reproach for the tacit and subtle political support from the Moroccan authorities to the Algerian party F.I.S. (Islamic Front for Salvation) following the coup d’état of 1991 which terminated the first democratic experience in Algeria.

Yet what happened on the 16th May 2003 was far more serious and unprecedented in scope. Many elements of the terror modus-operandi had not been seen in Morocco to date. Firstly, it was the first time that suicide bombers were used. Secondly, twelve perpetrators were involved, which indicates a very high level of indoctrination and determination. Thirdly, the quasi-simultaneous execution of the operation implies that the executors were highly trained in terrorist techniques.

On the other hand some details provoked the curiosity of some seasoned anti-terrorism experts. Firstly, the targeted places did not need suicide operations at all since they were normal public places with no significant security measures. Secondly, the perpetrators were far too many for these sorts of targets. Thirdly, the way the Moroccan authorities conducted the investigation following the blasts was suspicious. To illustrate, only one of the perpetrators survived the blast. He was quickly (and harshly) 'interrogated' in order to find the link between the perpetrators and the other levels of the terrorist organization which planned, financed and organized the bombings. He ultimately died from his injuries. The only name given to the interrogators (Abdelhak Bentassir) by the survivor was quickly apprehended. Yet instead of bringing him to justice, he was tortured inside the secret police headquarters and subsequently died one week after being in custody. With both deaths, the secret of the bombings was buried.

Without delay a wave of arrests targeted hundreds of Islamists or presumed Islamists throughout the country. They were arrested and detained on suspicion of belonging to 'criminal gangs' or of involvement in planning, inciting or carrying out violent acts, and for being connected with the bomb attacks in Casablanca. The arrests numbered some 2,000 according to official sources. Scores of the arrested have been sentenced to long prison sentences and over a dozen to the death penalty following trials, at which evidence reportedly extracted by torture or ill-treatment has been used to obtain convictions. There were numerous instances in which people were sentenced without the presence of their lawyers. In other cases defendants were being tried in batches, sometimes given just fifteen minutes each for their defence, which has provoked the outcry of national and international human rights organizations.

The paradox is that the Moroccan monarchy has desperately sought to establish a facade of human rights in the last few years. The coronation of the new king, Mohammed VI, brought many hopes that he would "heal Morocco’s wounds" after decades of stiff repression during the reign of King Hassan II (1961 – 1999), in which there were some six thousand cases of suspected ‘disappearances’ or torture at the hands of the police. One of the steps taken by the new king was to establish a 'Justice and Reconciliation Committee' to look into these cases and compensate the victims. Yet this is an ineffectual measure as that committee does not have the right to identify the abusers or bring them to justice. Another step taken was to release the journalist Ali L'Mrabit, who was convicted in May 2003 for "insulting the King" with cartoons and articles making fun of the royal family. However, the massive repression and formidable abuse of human rights since Morocco joined the 'war against terror' has undermined most of the tentative steps taken towards improving human rights.

Two years later, mixed feelings surround the remembrance of the bombings of Casablanca. On the one hand, the official media and some political parties tried to take advantage of the homage to the victims in order to score political points at the detriment of the new star of the Moroccan politics namely the P.J.D. (Party of the Justice and Development), a moderate Islamist party, by accusing the P.J.D. of favoring a climate of obscurantism and fanaticism. On the other hand, hundreds of prisoners allegedly linked to the Casablanca bombing have started a hunger strike that might become a world record. One thousand prisoners (a figure estimated by the former Moroccan Minister of Human rights Mr. Ziane) are currently observing a hunger strike demanding the quashing of convictions arising from their seriously flawed trials, flaws that have been admitted by the Moroccan king Mohammed VI in an interview with the Spanish Newspaper El Pais.

This intensity of the protest has taken the authorities by surprise. A prisoner, Khaled Boukri, has already died while on the hunger strike. Moreover for the first time a leader of the prisoners has been able to talk to the western media through a smuggled mobile phone demanding the trials to be re-heard. For him there was no doubt the bombing was the work of the Moroccan secret services in order to provoke a massive clamp-down of some opposition quarters.

The problem continues to present a serious challenge to the Moroccan regime as more people could die as a result of the hunger strike, becoming martyrs not only of their sympathizers but also for a significant part of the society. After an initial period of apathy, the Moroccan government is now trying to end the strike by all means. Yet instead of opening a dialogue with the prisoners, the authorities have decided to resort to more violence towards them despite their precarious health condition, using brutal means to transport them to secluded and inhumane prisons all over the country. It is no secret that the Moroccan prisons are among the worst in the world. In January 2005, a local NGO, the Moroccan Prison Observatory (OMP) reported that the population in the country's 46 prisons, which were designed for 39,000 had reached 59,000 prisoners. The OMP reported that food, hygiene and medical conditions were grossly inadequate, with a daily budget of only $1.30 per prisoner.

The Moroccan monarchy needs to make real and tangible efforts in order to improve the political, economic and social situation of the country. One of the major and urgent challenges is to transform the human rights slogans into a reality; failure to do so might mean the current political sirocco is only a sign of the sandstorm coming.


Tarek Cherkaoui is a New Zealand based academic.

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