Terror convictions, clemency in Morocco

Twelve Islamic militants were convicted of terrorism-related charges in Morocco March 2, including eight with alleged ties to al-Qaeda who supposedly had volunteered to fight in Iraq. The appeals court in Sale handed down prison terms of two to 15 years in the separate cases, the stiffest being for a Tunisian, Mohamed Ben el Hadi Messahel, a former restaurant worker in Milan, Italy. The seven others, all Moroccan, were convicted on charges of “organizing a criminal group preparing and committing terror acts” and lesser counts, receiving sentences of up to 10 years. One defendant was acquitted. Authorities said the faction also had ties elsewhere in North Africa and Europe, and links to the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC), which recently merged with al-Qaeda. Two defendants, Ayoub Zanm and Abdelhak Kouani, got two years each for organizing a criminal gang and “membership in a group of fighters in Iraq.” Proceedings in four other terrorism cases involving 10 defendants were postponed until the spring. (AP, March 3)

Meanwhile, more than 24,000 prisoners get their sentences reduced, in a gesture of reconciliation by King Mohammed VI to mark the birth of his daughter, the justice ministry announced. This is the largest number of inmates to be given a royal pardon. Human rights groups have long criticized the overcrowding and harsh conditions in Morocco’s prisons, which hold an estimated 55,000. Amongst those still in detention are hundreds of suspected Islamist militants arrested in the wake of the Casablanca suicide bombings in 2003. (SomaliNet, March 3) Pardons were also given to 8,836 prisoners, who are to be released immediately. This is the most significant clemency order since Nov. 16, 2005, when 10,000 were released during Morocco’s 50th independence anniversary. (Angola Press, March 4)

The chairman of the Human Rights Advisory Council (CCDH), Driss Benzekri, took the occassion to call for the abolition of death penalty in Morocco. “We want the death penalty to be abolished and with the support of his Highness King Mohammed VI, its absolute ban should be registered in the Constitution,” Benzekri said to the Casablanca daily Asharq al-Awsat. Moroccan courts continue to issue death sentences, although none has been carried out since 1994. (Angola Press, March 4)

See our last posts on Morocco and its terror crackdown