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The Moroccan jailed by three kings

Mohamed Bougrine
Mohamed Bougrine is called 'the prisoner of three kings'
Mohamed Bougrine has been a constant thorn in the flesh of the Moroccan authorities - resistance fighter, dissident and human rights campaigner. James Copnall meets a man who expects to return to jail, despite a recent royal pardon.

Seventy-two-year-old Mohamed Bougrine is not just the "prisoner of three kings".

He also held another title - Morocco's oldest political detainee - but that no longer applies.

At the beginning of the month, the old man was given a royal pardon, following several months in jail for what the authorities termed "lacking the respect due to the king".

Mohamed had taken to the streets in solidarity with men who had been locked up on a May Day march.

Armed struggle

Since he was a teenager, Mohamed has been campaigning against what he sees as evident injustice.

First it was the French colonisers. Then it was the Moroccan monarchy that replaced them.

A committed left-winger and human rights activist, he does not flinch from admitting he participated in armed movements against the state.

At first, it is difficult to reconcile that flinty portrait with the man who steps out of his house to greet me, a maroon cape billowing around him, a fluffy white hat on his head and a friendly gleam in his eyes.

Inside his modest but impeccably tidy home, Mohamed is true to the traditions of Moroccan hospitality, keen to make sure his visitors are at ease, while his wife, Fatima, pours mint tea from a burnished silver pot and distributes pastries.

But when he starts to describe his six jail terms, the steely strength of his determination becomes clear.

First arrest

"I was arrested for the first time 17 March 1960," he says, every date stuck in his mind.

"I was freed on Thursday 30 December 1966."

Mohamed Bougrine
Mohamed Bougrine's experiences in jail have deeply affected him
He had taken up arms against the royal army, and was heavily beaten in prison, he says.

That experience did not come close to stopping him.

Mohamed was imprisoned four times under the next Moroccan king, Hassan II, sometimes for supporting resistance movements, at other times for his political activity.

Hassan II was highly regarded for his political skills, but presided over a dictatorial regime in which opponents and human rights activists were regularly rounded up and tortured.

Mohamed does not try to hide the crimes he committed which led him to jail - indeed he seems proud of his personal acts against the regime.

But in the middle of his story, narrated in a clear, even voice, he suddenly loses control of his emotions.

Twenty-six of his comrades were killed in prison, he explains - and as he does so his voice cracks.

Then, he says, struggling to get the words out, they stripped his mother-in-law naked in front of him, to humiliate them both.

Difficult years

Suddenly the upright militant can no longer keep the tears from flowing.

Fatima hands him a paper tissue and he wipes his eyes, apologising profusely for his lack of control.

"I love my wife," he says, in a quiet but firm way that brings a timid but very proud smile to her face.

The many years Mohamed spent in jail were clearly extremely difficult for his family.

Map of Beni Mellal
His son grew up without his father for the first five years of his life - and everyone was shocked when Mohamed was arrested again last year.

His royal pardon came just a few days before King Mohamed VI visited Beni Mellal on a tour of the regions.

The long road leading past Mohamed Bougrine's house, named after the king who first imprisoned him, is crowded with the red and green Moroccan flags, and larger-than-life portraits of the current sovereign, to celebrate his day in the town.

It was another reminder of the cult of personality around the king, one which has scarcely changed over the years.

'Despotic regimes'

Mohamed Bougrine seems a good person to ask if life in Morocco is improving under Mohamed VI.

Hassan II's son received high praise for opening up Morocco when he came to the throne in 1999.

King Mohamed VI of Morocco
The King's talk of reconciliation does not impress Mohamed Bougrine

Prisoners were released, more rights granted, and some of the abuses of the past were admitted, for the first time.

Still, the old man in the white hat is not convinced.

"Hassan II ruled the country with an iron fist," Mohamed says.

"Mohamed VI rules with an iron fist - but in a velvet glove."

"He talks about reconciliation and humanitarian issues, but it's all a bluff."

Mohamed Bougrine says he has no personal problems with the three kings who have locked him up, and has no desire for revenge.

But he wants a true democracy for his country, and says almost all Arab regimes are despotic.

I don't think I have been in jail for the last time
Mohamed Bougrine

His 27-year-old son - the one who hardly knew his father growing up - is already a human rights campaigner, ready to follow in his dad's footsteps.

As I get ready to head back to Rabat, I ask Mohamed a last question.

After more than a decade in jail, after being tortured and humiliated, and at his advanced age, would he be prepared to go to prison again for his beliefs?

The response was as firm as this extraordinary man's convictions.

"I don't think I have been in jail for the last time, and it doesn't scare me," he said. "I am fighting for a better Morocco."

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday 19 April, 2008 at 1130 BST on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

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