(New York) - A Moroccan appeals court has confirmed the conviction of 35 defendants, including six political figures, in the so-called "Belliraj" terrorism case, apparently without addressing the procedural irregularities that denied the defendants their right to a fair hearing in the lower court, Human Rights Watch said today.
The Rabat Criminal Chamber in charge of terrorism cases, in its July 16, 2010 ruling, affirmed the lower court verdict finding the men guilty of forming a terrorist cell that smuggled arms and committed robberies to raise money to carry out terrorist acts to topple the government. The appeals court reduced the sentences of six defendants, including four associated with Islamist political parties who now face 10 years in prison. It confirmed the other sentences, including life in prison for the alleged ringleader, Abdelkader Belliraj, a Moroccan and Belgian dual citizen.
"Morocco's justice system seems to have missed an opportunity to correct a flawed trial," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. "The courts need to draw the line on police abuses that have become so commonplace in prosecuting cases labeled as terrorism."
The defendants now can petition the court of cassation to quash the verdict, the last judicial recourse available to them.
The appeals court has not yet released its written verdict, which will explain its reasoning. But defense lawyers reached after the verdict was announced said the appeals court did not respond to their requests to investigate the defendants' allegations of illegal arrests and searches by the police, torture during interrogation, illegally prolonged incommunicado detention, and falsified "confessions" and arrest dates. Nor did the appeals court review, the lawyers said, the investigating judge's refusal to let defendants view the case files before he questioned them.
The "Belliraj" case attracted more attention than the several other mass trials conducted in recent years under the counterterrorism law because the six political figures were among the defendants. They are Mostapha Mouâtassim and Mohamed Amine Regala, president and spokesperson respectively of the then-legal al-Badil al-Hadhari (Civilized Alternative) Party; Mohamed Merouani of the al-Oumma Party, another Islamist party; Abdelhafidh Sriti, a journalist for al-Manar television, an organ of Hezbollah of Lebanon; Al-Abadelah Maelainin, a senior figure of the Justice and Development Party, Morocco's leading Islamist party with 46 seats in Parliament; and Hamid Nejibi of the leftist Unified Socialist Party.
It was the first time mainstream figures were implicated in a terrorist affair. The six political figures denied all links to terrorism and illegal activities, although some said they had had a passing acquaintance with Belliraj. Many of their supporters accused the government of framing them to discredit their political movements.
Charges were dropped for one of the 36 original defendants, and six more either had completed sentences by early 2010 or received suspended sentences. The rest have been in pretrial detention since their arrests in early 2008.
The Rabat Court of Appeals, which tries terrorism cases in first instance, convicted all 35 defendants on July 28, 2009, of perfoming various roles in a network that smuggled arms into Morocco, forged documents, laundered money, and committed vehicle thefts and robberies, as part of what the court found to be a conspiracy to commit terrorist acts to topple the government and install an Islamist state. The charge sheet also linked the group to an assassination attempt in 1996. All of the alleged thefts and robberies dated to before 2001.
The defendants' police statements, which they later contested, appeared to implicate themselves and various co-defendants in various acts. For example, the defendants were said to have named one another as having been present at meetings with Belliraj in the early 1990s at which the overall plot was discussed. At least two defendants named Mouâtassim, Regala, and Merouani as being present when the group decided to rob the Makro department store in Casablanca in 1994, a charge that all three of these political figures denied.
At trial the defendants disputed the evidence against them, primarily consisting of these confessions, and proclaimed their innocence, stating that their "confessions" had been falsified or obtained under torture. Several said that plainclothes police arrested them without showing warrants, in violation of Moroccan law, and took them to a secret place of detention, where they held them for up to several weeks - well beyond the legal 12-day limit in terrorism cases.
They claimed the police used torture and illegal coercion to extract their confessions and then falsified the arrest date to cover up the prolonged detention. Some, though not all, had first raised these allegations before the investigative judge in the lower court trial. But the written decision of that court, issued in September 2009, provided no detailed explanation of its refusal to investigate these allegations, stating only that the allegations were not adequately substantiated to merit further investigation.
The police handled the six political figures somewhat differently from the rest of the defendants. The men said that their initial detention remained within the legal time limits, but that the police had "tricked" them into signing false confessions. When the investigating judge declined to allow them view their "confessions" and the rest of the evidence against them in the prosecutor's case files before questioning them, hobbling their ability to prepare their own defense, they refused to answer his questions. This led the investigating judge to present the "confessions" of the political defendants to the trial judge as if the men had not challenged their veracity.
Abderrahmane Benameur, a defense lawyer, said that both the lower level and appeals courts rejected defense motions to investigate the alleged torture and procedural irregularities surrounding the arrests, detention, production of police statements, and the refusal of the investigative judge to let the defendants see the incriminating police statements before questioning them, which the lawyers had appealed at the time, unsuccessfully. Benameur is a former president of the Rabat Bar Association and of the Moroccan Human Rights Association.
The lower court declined to act on the defense motions and admitted into evidence the allegedly coerced police statements that formed the backbone of the prosecution's case. The appeals court upheld those convictions, apparently also refusing to investigate the allegations. The court's written judgment, when it is released, may shed light on why it declined to examine these key allegations raised by the defense.
Both the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, which Morocco has ratified, and Morocco's code of penal procedure (Article 231) prohibit admitting evidence obtained under "torture" or "pressure." Torture, moreover, is a crime under Morocco's penal code (Article 231).
On September 19, 2009, Human Rights Watch, together with the Moroccan human rights organization Adala, addressed a letter to Morocco's justice minister requesting clarifications about alleged irregularities at the first instance trial. The minister did not respond, but on January 27, M'hammed Abdenabaoui, the Justice Ministry's director of penal affairs, along with colleagues, received a delegation from Human Rights Watch and discussed the case.
Abdenabaoui said the defendants had not raised complaints of torture at their earliest appearances before the investigating judge, making it reasonable and lawful for the trial court judge to decline to investigate the allegations. With the passage of months between the alleged torture and the hearing, the physical evidence of abuse would no longer be present, he said.
However, some defendants did raise allegations of police torture and mistreatment before the investigative judge. Furthermore, courts should ensure that allegations of torture made during a trial are investigated, both to determine the admissibility of the central evidence in the case and to respond to allegations that officials had committed criminal acts.
For example, the court report (procès verbal) of Maelainin's appearance before the investigating judge on February 28, 2008, only nine days afer his arrest, states that he told the judge that police slapped and kicked him, and insulted him and his relatives. Although the court clerk dutifully entered this allegation into the court records, the judge never investigated the alleged acts of police violence. Maelainin is among the political defendants who alleged that the police falsified his confession.
Mouâtassim, the best known of the accused, told the press from his prison cell in 2008 that the implication of the six political figures, none of whom has a prior criminal record, was a ploy to destroy or undermine the political parties whose members were implicated. On February 20, 2008, two days after Mouâtassim's arrest, Prime Minister Abbas al-Fassi outlawed al-Badil al-Hadhari, Mouâtassim's party, which had participated in the 2007 legislative elections.
The affair aroused attention also because the charge sheet attributed so few concrete acts to the defendants in what Chekib Benmoussa, interior minister at that time, had presented to the media as the trial of a major, well-funded, al-Qaeda-linked terrorist network.
Belliraj, the alleged ringleader and Moroccan-Belgian dual citizen, had in the past been questioned by Belgian police about possible links to terrorist networks. Belliraj's "confession" to the Moroccan police included committing six politically motivated, unsolved murders in Belgium in the 1980s, for which no Belgian court ever charged him. The other defendants included 26 men from various cities in Morocco, and two Moroccans who lived in Belgium.
"After two and a half years in detention, and after two trials, it seems that the "Belliraj" defendants are still awaiting justice," Whitson said.
List of Defendants in "Belliraj" Case and the Sentences Handed Down by the Court of First Instance and Appeals Court:
Abdelkader Belliraj, life in prison
Abellatif al-Bekhti, 30 years
Abdessamed Bennouh, 30 years
Jamal al-Bey, 30 years,
Lahoussine Brigache, 30 years
Redouane al-Khalidi, 30 years
Abdallah ar-Ramache, 30 years
Mohamed al-Youssoufi, 30 years
Mohamed Merouani, 25 years, reduced to 10 years on appeal
Moustapha Mouâtassim, 25 years, reduced to 10 years on appeal
Mohamed Amine Regala, 25 years, reduced to 10 years on appeal
Al-Abadelah Maelainin, 20 years, reduced to 10 years on appeal
Abdelhafidh Sriti, 20 years, reduced to 10 years on appeal
Abd al-Ghali Chighanou, 15 years
Mokhtar Lokman, 15 years
Abderrahim Nadhi, 10 years
Abderrahim Abu ar-Rakha, 10 years
Hassan Kalam, 8 years
Slah Belliraj, 8 years, reduced to 5 years on appeal
Ahmed Khouchiâ, 8 years
Samir Lihi, 8 years
Moustapha at-Touhami, 8 years
Bouchâab Rachdi, 6 years
Mohamed Azzergui, 5 years
Mansour Belghiche, 5 years
Adel Benaïem, 5 years
Mohamed Chaâbaoui, 5 years
Jamaleddine Abdessamed, 3 years
Abdelazim at-Taqi al-Amrani, 3 years
Larbi Chine, 2 years, sentence completed in early 2010
Ibrahim Maya, 2 years, sentence completed in early 2010
Abdellatif Bouthrouaien, 2 years, sentence completed in early 2010
Hamid Nejibi, 2 years, sentence completed in early 2010
Mohamed Abrouq, 1 year suspended
Ali Saïdi, 1 year suspended
Abdelaziz Brigache, charges dropped