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Tuesday, 10 December, 2002, 08:57 GMT
Morocco's crackdown on islamists
Abdullah Mesfer Ali al-Ghamdi, Zouhair Hilal and Hilal El-Assiri.
Police say suspects were found with explosives

The trial in Morocco of three Saudis and seven Moroccans accused of being part of an al-Qaeda plot has shaken the image many Moroccans hold of their country as a peaceful, tolerant Muslim state.


The young mujahideen who have returned from Afghanistan are going to want to do the same thing here as they did over there

Lahcen Ossimouah, journalist
Many here now fear their country is under threat from the import of radical, fundamentalist ideas from abroad.

Anouar Zyne describes how his friend, Aziz Assadi, a young lawyer, was killed by a group of radical Islamists a year ago.

"My friend Aziz was leaving a bar in the centre of Casablanca with two female friends, when he was accosted by five young men. They forced him into their car, and drove him to the outskirts of the city," he says.

"There they carried out a sort of mock trial, and found him guilty of being an infidel because he drank alcohol and had female company. Then they slit his throat and dumped his body down a well."

Women demonstrate in Morocco
The Islamists have battled women who demand more rights

Police say the group responsible has been carrying out a number of similar murders across the country.

In July, several men were detained for the killings and are now awaiting trial.

The arrests appear to have been part of a crackdown against Islamist groups, including Salafists, a fundamentalist current of Islam.

Lahcen Ossimouah is a journalist on Morocco's biggest-selling daily newspaper, al-Ahdath al-Maghribia.

Mosques closed

"Last summer, the authorities arrested a number of young people belonging to radical Islamist groups like Salafist Combatants, who had committed crimes across the country. These groups came from urban slum areas, so the authorities closed down the mosques there, which were makeshift and unofficial," he says.

"Also, it was discovered that thousands of books and cassettes with a fundamentalist message had been imported into Morocco illegally from Saudi Arabia for example, and so the bookshops selling them were closed down."

Mr Ossimouah believes there is a small core of radical islamists in Morocco, including those who fought in Afghanistan against the Russians.

King Mohammed VI
The King is the religious authority in the country

He says the authorities were right to move against them:

"I think in Morocco, the young mujahideen who have returned from Afghanistan are going to want to do the same thing here as they did over there. I think we are faced with the seeds of violence, and if we hadn't done something to limit this phenomenon, it could have got out of control."

It is a contentious issue here. Mohamed Darif, professor of political science at Mohamedia University, says there is no real threat to the government.

Awaiting trial

"If we start with a definition of radical Islamism as a well-structured organisation with a political strategy, that works for the overthrow of the political regime through violence, then I think radical Islam does not exist here in Morocco."

Whether or not that is true, the relatives of those on the receiving end of the government crackdown say that the authorities' reaction has been extreme.

Saleh Zarli was detained on several occasions by the secret police in a poor district of Casablanca as his mother, Zohra, explains.

Semi-nudity is seen as unIslamic
The Islamists have demonstrated on beaches

She says he was taken by force as he was leaving the mosque one day.

He was taken to a secret location, blindfolded and beaten, and for 40 days she had no news of him. He is now in prison, awaiting trial.

This is not an isolated occurrence, says Abdelkader Amara, a member of parliament for the Islamist Party of Justice and Development.

He says such kidnappings are illegal, and individuals are picked on because of their appearance or their ideas.

"It seems to me that those arrested fit a stereotype - they dress in a Middle Eastern way, with a particular type of beard, they go to particular mosques. They're people who can be a bit virulent verbally perhaps, but it stops there."

Morocco is proud of its own brand of Islam which it sees as moderate and tolerant, and it wants to preserve that tradition.

But critics of the government see the core of radicalism as having its roots in poverty and ignorance - something , they say, that is not being addressed by the current state crackdown.


Key stories

European probe

Background

IN DEPTH
See also:

27 Oct 02 | Africa
11 Jun 02 | Africa
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