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Saturday, 2 November, 2002, 04:44 GMT
State accused over Morocco jail blaze
Entrance to the prison
Prison staff warded off journalists who tried to approach
Human rights groups in Morocco have condemned conditions in the country's overcrowded prisons after a fire killed at least 50 inmates and injured dozens more at a jail in El Jadida.

No cause for the incident at the Sidi Moussa jail, 180 kilometres(110 miles) south of the capital Rabat, has been established but local sources, speaking unofficially, said they suspected an electrical fault.

Justice Minister Omar Amizzan arrives at the prison
The government is accused of ignoring previous prison fires
King Mohammed has sent condolences to relatives of the victims and ordered his justice minister to open an investigation.

Inmates appear to have choked to death or been trampled in the stampede to escape.

A local official told Reuters news agency that Sidi Moussa was a "model prison, well-equipped and meeting required standards" but the head of a pressure group for prison reform called the fact that the blaze could be allowed to happen a "scandal".

Abderrahim Jamai, head of the Moroccan Prisons Observatory (OMP), said it "most certainly resulted from a lack of maintenance".

Another rights group, AMDH, addressed an open letter to Justice Minister Omar Amizzan accusing him of failing to learn from a fire in 1997 at a Casablanca prison which left 28 people dead.

"As far as we know, your ministry did not take the necessary measures to eradicate this phenomenon, as shown by its repetition and increasingly disastrous outcome," the letter reads.

BBC correspondent Stephanie Irvine says such fires are common in Morocco where many public buildings have antiquated wiring. Morocco's overcrowded prison cells would have compounded the problem:

  • Sidi Moussa was holding 1,313 inmates at the time although only built to house 1,000

  • Morocco's prison population has nearly doubled in the past decade, from about 31,230 inmates in 1991 to more than 57,300 in 2001

  • An OMP report says the number of prisoners increased by a further 12% this year

  • Only this August, two prisoners were killed and 20 injured in a fire caused by an electrical fault in the prison of Kanicha, north of Rabat

OMP has also pointed to corruption, sexual abuse and a lack of hygiene in Morocco's jails.

Anguish

Some 2,000 relatives gathered outside the prison soon after the fire but their numbers fell to about 100 as the day wore on.

"All we are asking for is the names of the people who have been killed," said one weeping 17-year-old girl, whose husband has been imprisoned in Sidi Moussa since last year.

Coffin for Chiab Mustapha, one of the inmates
Few of the victims appear to have died of burns
Other women screamed "My Son My son!"

People living near the prison say they heard inmates screaming for help after the blaze erupted at around 0100 (0100 GMT) on Friday.

The fire broke out in one prison building and quickly spread to three others.

It took firefighters nearly four hours to contain it.

Media reports said inmates had been using electric stoves with unsafe wiring, and candles after the lights were put out at night.

Morocco's outgoing Prime Minister Abderrahmane el Youssoufi and his successor Driss Jettou have visited the site of the disaster together with Justice Minister Azziman.

"The necessary assistance was extended to the victims and to their families and an investigation will be conducted on the causes of the tragedy," said Mr Youssoufi.

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 ON THIS STORY
The BBC's Stephanie Irvine reports from Morocco
"The cause of the fire is still unknown"
See also:

08 May 01 | Africa
08 Oct 00 | Africa
24 Oct 02 | Country profiles
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