Morocco sentenced at least 6 politicans on terrorism charges in the 2009 Belliraj case

On 28 July 2009, a Sale court in Morocco sentenced Moroccan-Belgian Abdelkader Belleraj to life in prison for running an international terrorist network. The 34 other defendants on trial with Belleraj received sentences ranging from one to 30 years. While there is little doubt that Belleraj and some of his associates have committed grave crimes, the public and media have labeled six of the defendants “political detainees” because of allegations that they were arrested for their political affiliation rather than for having any real connection to terrorist actions or intentions.

Maelainin Laabadla, a Sahrawi member of the national council of the Islamist-inspired Party of Justice and Development (PJD), headed the PJD’s commission on the Western Sahara; Mustafa Moatassim served as Secretary General of the Civilized Alternative (Al Badil Al Hadari), a small, Islamist-inspired political party which was disbanded two days after his arrest; Mohamed Marouani and Amine Regala had been, respectively, the Secretary General and party spokesperson of the unauthorized party of the Nation (Al Oumma), an Islamist organization that had been seeking party status; and Abdelhafid Sriti worked as a television correspondent for Hezbollah’s Al Manar. The sixth politician, Hamid Najibi, a member of the national council of the Unified Socialist Party (PSU), and the only politician not affiliated with an Islamist party, received a suspended sentence of two years.

According to cable 09RABAT679 from 6 August 2009 the US and Belgian embassies were convinced that there was  little evidence that the six politicians had any involvement in planning terrorist acts, and that the 35 defendants had been sentenced after an unfair trial.

“Despite repeated requests, the Government of Morocco did not provide satisfactory evidence to the Mission of a connection between the [6] politicians and the terrorist network.” And, according to a counselor at the Belgian Embassy, there was “no doubt” that the trial was unfair.

Some of the evidence used in the trial had been provided by Belgium and was written in French and Dutch, which “neither the accused and the prosecutor” could understand. The state’s evidence against all 35 of the accused consisted of the defendants’ statements to the police in which they implicate themselves and others, and two seizures of weapons which were allegedly intended to be used to conduct assassinations and other terrorist acts. The defendants initially affirmed their statements before a preliminary judge, but then retracted them before the trial judge, saying they had been obtained under duress or had been altered.

According to the cable:

11. (S/NF) The judge’s written decision on the case has not yet been made available, and it is, therefore, not clear what, if any, other evidence the GOM may have against the accused. The Moroccan Government provided to the Regional Affairs Office photographs of the seized weapons which included guns, ammunition, silencers, and balaclavas. Despite repeated requests, the GOM did not provide satisfactory evidence to the Mission of a connection between the politicians and the terrorist network.

The cable makes clear that there existed other very serious fair-trial concerns in the Belliraj case. Apparently the judge had repeatedly refused to allow the defense access to files, to call witnesses or to introduce evidence. In addition, nearly all the defendants alleged that their statements had been altered by the police. The Charge raised these concerns in his June 24 meeting with Human Rights Council Chairman Ahmed Herzenni, who acknowledged the irregularities and promised to review the trial following delivery of the verdict.

13. Calling the trial “pre-cooked,” Johan Jacobs, Counselor at the Belgian Embassy, said there is “no doubt” the trial was unfair. Not a single person had been acquitted, he observed, an unlikely outcome given the large number of defendants. He also questioned how an impartial judge could reach a verdict and determine sentences for 35 different individuals less than 12 hours after the closing arguments. He told PolOff that some of the evidence used in the trial had been provided by Belgium and was written in French and Dutch. Even though the evidence provided by Brussels was accurate and, in some cases damning, Jacobs wondered how the trial could be fair if neither the defense nor the prosecution could understand it. When the defense requested to have the files translated into Arabic, the court ruled that only parts of the files could be translated, orally, during court proceedings. This is a peculiar way ofhonoring a defendant’s right to know the evidence against him, he said, adding, “Some of these guys have real proof against them, but that does not change the fact that the trial was unfair.” Sidi Ali Maelainin called the lack of a fair trial “frightening.” In the context of national celebration of the reforms initiated by King Mohammed VI over the last ten years, he wondered, “How can this be possible in the new Morocco?”

The US embassy ended with the following damning end-paragraph:

14. (C) The GOM’s heavy-handed approach  illustrates Morocco’s willingness to use its counterterrorism laws to marginalize Islamist-inspired political activities. The nearly universal belief that the verdict of this trial was predetermined by the Ministry of the Interior – a not unlikely scenario – highlights the lack of trust many Moroccans have in the justice system. Equally troubling for Morocco’s governance reform outlook is the plausible prospect that at least six defendants were tried and convicted for political reasons unrelated to zealous counter-terrorism objectives. If true, this would represent a manipulation of the courts not only for security goals but also to affect legitimate political activity – a step backward in the political and democratic progress the Kingdom has realized in the past decade. Although the GOM has made great progress in respecting human rights under King Mohammed VI, there is still room for improvement, particularly in respecting non-establishment viewpoints.

The EU as a counter-terrorism actor abroad

This paper by the EPC looks at thehandling of counter-terrorism in the ensemble of EU external relations and assistance vis-à-vis five countries of recognised importance for European interests: Algeria, Morocco, Yemen, Pakistan, and Indonesia.

Morocco terrorism suspects face serious human rights violations: HRW

Suspects detained under Morocco’s counterterrorism law routinely face serious human rights violations, including illegal detention and torture, according to a report issued Monday by Human Rights Watch. The 56-page report was created following interviews with seven men detained pursuant to the counterterrorism law. The stories document a pattern of abuse in which suspected terrorists are detained by plainclothes agents, provided no reason for arrest and then transported to secret detention facilities. At the facility, five of the men claim they were tortured and held for an indeterminate length of time. The suspects were then released into police custody only after they agreed to sign a statement, which was later used against them as a “confession” in court. While the counterterrorism law allows for an extension of pre-arraignment detention and an extension of the time a detainee can be denied contact with their lawyer, on many occasions agents reportedly altered the paperwork to fit within permitted limits.

HRW contends such violations  stand in the face of legislation Morocco has adopted to defend against infringement of suspects’ rights as well as international conventions the country has signed. Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at HRW stated, “While Morocco has demonstrated the political will to adopt enlightened human rights legislation, it lacks the political will to enforce it when it comes to terrorism suspects.” The report concludes with suggestions for Morocco to adopt, including ensuring that state officers always show credentials, that they be held accountable for treatment of detainees, and that the acceptable pre-arraignment detention period be shortened.

Binalshibh secret prison interrogation tapes found, names of 6 prisoners in Romania secret facility disclosed

AP reports that the two videotapes and one audiotape of 9/11 plotter Ramzi Binalshibh being interrogated in a secret overseas prison are believed to be the only remaining recordings made within the clandestine prison system. The tapes depict Binalshibh’s interrogation sessions at a Moroccan-run facility the CIA used near Rabat in 2002, several current and former U.S. officials told The Associated Press. AP reveals that the counterterrorism programme named ‘Greystone’, authorized the CIA to hold terrorists in secret prisons and shuttle them to other countries

A Justice Department prosecutor who is already investigating whether  destroying the Zubaydah and al-Nashiri tapes was illegal is now also  probing why the Binalshibh tapes were never disclosed. Twice, the  government told a federal judge they did not exist.

The CIA first publicly hinted at the existence of the Binalshibh  tapes in 2007 in a letter to U.S. District Judge Leonie M. Brinkema in  Virginia. The government twice denied having such tapes, and recanted  once they were discovered. But the government blacked out Binalshibh’s  name from a public copy of the letter.

At the time, the CIA played down the significance,  saying the videos were not taken as part of the CIA’s detention program  and did not show CIA interrogations.

That’s true, but only because of the unusual nature  of the Moroccan prison, which was largely financed by the CIA but run by Moroccans, the former officials said. The CIA could move detainees in  and out, and oversee the interrogations, but officially, Morocco had control. The CIA provided also millons of dollars to upgrade the facility, including by introducing audio and video equipment in the facility.

Current and former U.S. officials say no harsh interrogation methods, like the simulated drowning tactic called waterboarding, were used in Morocco. In the CIA’s secret network of undisclosed “black prisons,” Morocco was just way station of sorts, a place to hold detainees for a few months at a time.

“The tapes record a guy sitting in a room just answering questions,” according to a U.S. official familiar with the program.

That would make them quite different from the 92 interrogation videos of Zubaydah and al-Nashiri being subjected to waterboarding and other harsh interrogation tactics.

He has experienced delusions, believing the CIA was intentionally shaking his bed and cell, according to court records and interviews. He has imagined tingling sensations like things were crawling all over him and developed a nervous tic, obsessively scratching himself.

Nine years after his capture, there is no indication when Binalshibh and other admitted 9/11 terrorists will face military or civilian trials.

Binalshibh and other accused 9/11 conspirators have openly admitted  their roles, praising the attacks. Binalshibh and the others have asked  to plead guilty, a move that would head off any trial and almost  certainly guarantee the videotapes never get played in any court.

Binalshibh timeline:
* 11/09/2002: Captured in Karachi, Pakistan
* Between 12 and 17 september 2002: Detained and interrogated in the Dark Prison in Bagram, Afghanistan
* 17/09/2002: Transported to Rabat, Morocco, through Jordan
* 07/03/2003: Transported to a facility in Poland, where he was interrogated. Other people held there at the time: KSM, Abu Zubayda, Bin Attash, Abu Yasir Al Jaza’iri.
* 06/06/2003: Transported back to Rabat, together with Al Nashiri. At this time the CIA doesn’t see him as a provider of actionable intelligence anymore.
* 23/09/2003: Transported to Guantanamo Bay. Others there at this site during his stay: Abu Zubaydah, Al-Nashiri, Abu Yasir Al Jaza’iri, Gouled Hassan Dourad, Mustafa al-Hawasawi
* 27/03/2004: Transported back to Rabat, ahead of a US Supreme Court ruling that would have allowed the detainees to have access to lawyers. Others held there: Al-Nashiri, Hambali, Al-Hawasawi, Abu Zubaydah, Ammar Al-Baluchi, Gouled Hassan Dourad
* 01/10/2004: Transported to a jail in Bucharest, Romania, which consists of six cells. Other people held there: KSM, Al Nashiri, Hambali, Al-Libi, Bin Attash, Janaat Gul
* 06/09/2006: Named as one of the 14 HVD’s that were sent to Guantanamo.

Morocco Breaks Up Radical Islamist Cell

Moroccan security forces broke up a radical Islamist cell that was planning attacks in Morocco, including on foreign targets, official media quoted the interior ministry as saying on Wednesday.

The cell had 18 members, including three Islamists who had been detained in the past over related offences, the official MAP news agency said, quoting a ministry statement.

The statement did not specify which targets the detained Islamists planned to attack or name the foreign countries whose interests were threatened by the cell members.

“The members of the cell were getting ready to carry out terrorist attacks and sabotage inside the national territory and against foreign interests in Morocco,” the statement said.

Italy expels 2 Moroccans on terrorism grounds

Italy has expelled under its anti-terrorism law two Moroccans on 29 April 2010 because they were suspected of plotting to assassinate Pope Benedict, an Italian Ministry source said on Friday.

Mohammed Hlal, 27, studied international communications in the central  town of Perugia before being sent back to Morocco by Italian police  along with 22-year-old Errahmouni Ahmed, who studied maths and physics  also in Perugia.

“Hlal wished for the death of the head of the Vatican City state, saying he was ready to kill him to ensure his own ascent to heaven,” said the  expulsion decree signed by Italian Interior Minister Roberto Maroni.

The ministry said Friday the two were placed on a Casablanca-bound plane in Rome on April 29 in order to “safeguard the security of the state” and to prevent terrorism, the  interior ministry said, citing phone tapped conversations as evidence.

News magazine Panorama, owned by Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s family, reported on Friday that local anti-terrorist police had tapped Hlal’s phone and had raised the alarm when he said he wanted to acquire explosives.

The magazine said police discovered a map of Turin at Errahmouni’s house annotated with numbers and circles, ahead of a visit to the northern Italian city by Pope Benedict on May 2 to venerate the Shroud of Turin, which many Catholics believe was Jesus Christ’s burial cloth.

Panorama described Errahmouni as a computer expert who remained in contact with militant groups over the Internet. It said Perugia had become a centre for travelling imams to preach radical Islam.

The deportations followed an investigation begun by anti-terrorism  police last October into a group of radical Muslim foreign students in Italy,most of whom came from the Moroccan city of Fez. The interior ministry said the two deported Moroccans belonged to this group.

Anti-terror police also searched the homes of several foreign students at Perugia, including four Moroccans, a Tunisian and a Palestinian with Israeli citizenship, who had in recent months had contact with the two deported Moroccans.

North Africa countries move against al-Qaida

(UPI) Algeria has launched a major military campaign against al-Qaida and its fellow travelers and Morocco says it rounded up a terrorist cell amid a campaign by North African states aimed at crushing the jihadists.

The campaign, dubbed Operation Ennasr — Victory — followed an April 20 summit attended by the military chiefs of four regional states — Algeria, Mauritania, Mali and Niger — at the oasis town of Tamanrasset deep in the Sahara Desert south of Algiers. They agreed to set up a joint military base there, with the quartet joined by Libya, Chad and Burkina Faso.

They will form a joint operational military committee with headquarters in the desert town to go after al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb — the Arabic name for North Africa — and Saharan drug smuggling and kidnap gangs associated with them.

The lack of surveillance and heavy transport aircraft, and especially helicopters, among the regional states has severely limited their counter-insurgency programs. This could impede the current plans that will cover the vast Sahara-Sahel region.

Maghreb & Sahel Terrorism: Addressing the Rising Threat from al-Qaeda & other Terrorists in North & West/Central Africa

Paper by Yonah Alexander, Director of the International Center for Terrorism Studies at the Potomac Institutesfor Policy Studies. Read it here.

There are four sections in this report. First, the introduction surveys recent terrorism studies with specific relevance to this paper and provides an overview of contemporary terrorism. Second, a section on Maghreb terrorism concisely covers the roots and current security situation in Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia, Libya, and Mauritania and its broader implications. Third, a review of terrorism in the Sahel analyzes the threats in Mali, Chad, and Niger and their broader implications. The fourth and concluding section outlines general observations on terrorism, details unilateral and multilateral counterterrorism strategies, and offers preliminary recommendations. The report also includes a select bibliography of sources and a Chronology of Maghreb and Sahel Terrorism since 9/11, which lays out a detailed timeline highlighting the gravity of this growing transnational terrorist threat.