Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Morocco traffickers get rich peddling European dream

They get rich luring the young with tales of a promised land, they impoverish families with huge fees and up to a fifth of their clients end up dead.

But for poor Moroccans desperate for a new start in life, immigrant trafficking gangs are modern-day Robin Hoods who risk jail to spirit their clients into fortress Europe.

Belgacem Abdelilah was looking after himself and his widowed mother by hawking sunglasses in his home town of Khouribga when an acquaintance offered him a trip to Spain.

"I thought 'If so many illiterate people can make a go of it in Europe, why shouldn't I?' I was the only man in the family -- it was my duty."

His mother sold her jewellery and borrowed from relatives to pay the trafficker.

Abdelilah was holed up for 15 days in a seedy hotel in the Spanish enclave of Ceuta before he was told the ferry supposed to take him and his companions to the mainland was no more than a flimsy, five-metre (16 ft) wooden boat.

"I went down on my knees and said the prayer you normally give for someone already dead," he says. "It was as if we already knew our fate."

Thrown around by the waves, the boat crawled within sight of the lights of Spain before it began to rain. The vessel filled with water and sank. Abdelhilal was pulled from the water by a Spanish coastguard, whose name -- Paco -- he adopted in gratitude.

He was returned to Morocco shortly afterwards.


According to the Red Cross, more than 1,000 people have died this year trying to reach Spain's Canary Islands across the Atlantic. Fishing boats packed with people from sub-Saharan Africa arrive in the Canaries each day.

"The people who take these pateras (boats) are the immigrant proletariat," says Khalil Jemmah, who works with Abdelilah at Moroccan illegal immigrant family support group AFVIC in Khouribga.

"Many have never seen the sea and have no idea of the danger."

Tightened surveillance and reinforced coastal patrols have made it harder than ever for African migrants to reach Europe.

Their desperation means more money for the gangs in control of the remaining migrant routes, who can charge huge sums while paying little regard to safety and offering no guarantee of success.

It costs almost 3,000 euros ($3,829) for a seat in a patera, says Abdelilah, in a country where the annual minimum wage is about 2,400 euros.

For a fake passport, the fee is around 6,000 euros while those who can afford it can buy a non-existent European work contract for up to 9,000 euros.

A cheaper option is a brief marriage to a Moroccan living in Europe.

"You wouldn't believe how many weddings there are here in August when the expats come home, and how many divorces in October and November," says Abdelilah.

According to AFVIC, two-thirds of the illegal Moroccan migrants arrested by Spanish authorities in recent years come from the farming and phosphate mining region south of Khouribga, 120 km (75 miles) southeast of the economic capital Casablanca.

Generations have left here to seek work in the factories of France, Spain and Italy but with the end of the era of mass labour in Europe, the doors slammed shut.


Over 1 million Moroccans still escape poverty thanks to money sent or brought home by relatives abroad, according to Mohammed Khachani, president of the Moroccan Migration Study and Research Association.

The government has opened a regional investment centre in Khouribga and is gradually extending roads, electricity lines and running water.

But some locals complain that expats fritter away the funds they repatriate on big houses, cars and consumer goods instead of investing in local initiatives and job-creating enterprises.

Meanwhile, youngsters are driven to distraction by images of western success and by the wealth flaunted by the expats.

"Some people live for 11 months of the year in difficult conditions in Europe but spend their one month back home showing off," says Khachani.

Twenty-year-old Samadi Najat's husband walked out one day and never came back. Weeks later, while watching television, she discovered he had drowned trying to cross from Tunisia to Italy.

Left to tend a rented flock of sheep and goats, a baby daughter and an ageing mother in a small, run-down farmhouse, Najat is under pressure from relatives to return the money her husband borrowed to pay his trafficker.

"My husband's mother still can't believe he is dead," says Najat. "And I'm still waiting for the death certificate. Without it I can't sell up here and start a new life."

Six of Najat's relatives have died trying to reach Europe. In her commune of Fokra, near Khouribga, 65 were lost in one night when their boat capsized. The case led to rare prosecutions for three traffickers, who received jail sentences totaling 44 years.

But most continue to ply their trade unperturbed, partly by offering migrants who are caught a second or even a third chance at no charge if they keep silent.

And the risk of prison makes illegal migrants think twice before pointing the finger at their trafficker.

"Victims risk six to 12 months in prison if they come clean. We need a change to the law to remove this protection for the traffickers," says Khalil Jemmah.

Tuesday, May 30, 2006


Many of the 700 Islamic militants sentenced to jail terms following the 2003 terrorist attacks in Casablanca are on hunger strike, the director of the Moroccan prisons department Mohammed Abdenabaoui said. "Approximatly 300 Islamic inmates are on hunger strike in seven different prisons," he was quoted as saying by the AFP news agency. The inmates are demanding new trials and to be set free.

The hunger strike reportedly begun on 29 May to coincide with a conference on the reintegration of prisoners organised by the Mohammed VI Foundation.

Some 2,000 Islamic militants were arrested after terrorist attacks on Casablanca left 45 dead on May 16, 2003. Seven hundred are still in jail, Abdenabaoui said.

Friday, May 26, 2006

Plot fears prompt Islamist crackdown

Moroccan authorities briefly detained 330 activists from the main Islamist opposition group and sealed its office amid fears that the unauthorised group was plotting an uprising this year.

Officials from the group Al-Adl wa al-Ihsane (Justice and Charity) said one of its leaders, Mohammed Abdelali, and 181 other members were arrested.

The arrests took place in Oujda, 541km east of the capital Rabat, and in the small nearby town of Beni Mothar late on Thursday.

"Police stormed the two places where the members were meeting and arrested them before they emptied the offices of everything they found inside, including computers and books" an official from the group said.

Another official said: "A total of 148 brothers (Al-Adl members) were arrested in Rabat and three other cities on Wednesday and the previous two days."

"All those arrested were released later but the mass arrests were unprecedented since we launched an 'Open Doors' campaign weeks ago in several cities," said the official.

Neither official wanted to be identified.

Suspected plot

One of them said the authorities sealed off the group's office in Oujda and posted policemen to prevent access to it.

"It is the first time the authorities took such decision to seal off an office. In the past, they deployed police discreetly to watch without intervening," he added.

Al-Adl, which shies away from violence, is tolerated but not authorised as a political party.

Fathallah Arslane, Al-Adl spokesman, said the crackdown was spurred by what he called biased reports and comments in some local anti-Islamist newspapers about the group's activities.

Media have said the leadership of Al-Adl wa al-Ihsane, which is the biggest opposition group with an estimated 250,000 members, told followers to prepare for a Qawma (uprising) this year to establish a purist Muslim fundamentalist state.

"We are organising activities like the 'Open Doors' campaign so that more people will know us for what we are, rather than what some media say about us," Arslane said, dismissing the reports of a rebellion.

Containment strategy

Another of Al-Adl's leading figure said the authorities had been eyeing the "Open Doors" campaign closely and moved to stop it when they saw it was arousing interest.

"The authorities were alarmed by the large number of people who showed an interest in listening to us and joining us. The authorities do not want that ahead of next year's parliamentary elections," he added.

Government officials were not immediately available to comment but analysts said the government pursues a containment strategy to trim Al-Adl's strength without confronting it.

Thursday, May 25, 2006

More low-cost flights to Morocco

Ryanair inks five-year deal for flights to Morocco, bringing more rivalry on flights between Europe and Morocco.

Ryanair, Europe’s leading low fares airline, announced Thursday that it had signed a five-year agreement with the Moroccan government to fly to the North African country after six months of negotiations with Rabat.

The deal will allow the Irish carrier to develop low-cost air access and tourism to Morocco from Ryanair's bases throughout Europe, it said in a statement.

The agreement, which begins this month, covers most of the regional airports in Morocco and involves Ryanair’s commitment to establish up to 20 routes, carrying almost one million passengers per annum by the end of the five year period.

Ryanair’s Deputy Chief Executive, Michael Cawley said in a statement in Rabat: “We are delighted to make this joint announcement with the Government of Morocco. This represents a singularly important initiative in the development of tourism and business for the country. The Government has recognised that low cost air access is a growth vehicle for tourism throughout Europe and by joining the Open Skies regime and embracing Europe’s leading low fares airline, the Government in Morocco has made a clear statement about its intentions to develop its tourism industry in the next five years.

“Our low fares will also help expatriate Moroccans to see their families more often and facilitate local businesses in accessing markets with low fare routes including those already announced to both Frankfurt and Marseille.

“Ryanair will be making many more new route announcements in Morocco over the coming months and years as we build on the solid basis which this long term agreement provides. I congratulate the Government of Morocco on this initiative and look forward to working successfully with it to develop its tourism and other business.”

The announcement is good news for both expatriate Moroccans and the country’s tourism.

Ryanair, besides low-cost airlines easyjet and Atlas Blue, will bring increased competition on flights between Europe and Morocco, providing low cost access for hundreds of thousands of expatriate Moroccans and foreign tourists alike for business and leisure purposes.

The influx of low cost airlines is in line with Moroccan government’s ambitious “Vision-2010" strategy which is meant to attract 10 million tourists by 2010 in a bid to boost its tourism industry.

Ryanair's chief rival, British no-frills airline easyJet, is to launch its flights to the Moroccan holiday resort of Marrakech in July.

Morocco is an attractive tourist destination thanks to its mesmerizing cultural heritage and distinctive natural beauty, from snow-capped mountains to fascinating beaches to the desert’s huge golden sand dunes, as well as a hot climate all year round.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Alarm at human bird flu cluster

The World Health Organization (WHO) says it is extremely worried about a cluster of recent human deaths from the virulent H5N1 strain of bird flu.

Seven people from the same family in northern Sumatra, Indonesia, died from the disease earlier this month.

WHO spokesman Peter Cordingley said there was no sign of diseased poultry in the immediate area.

Investigators are looking into the possibility that the virus spread from human to human, Mr Cordingley said.

But he emphasised that there was no indication the virus had mutated.

Experts are worried that if it does mutate, the H5N1 strain could become more easily transmitted between humans, leading to a worldwide pandemic of the killer disease.

The H5N1 virus has already killed more than 120 people worldwide since 2003. It has also devastated poultry stocks.

The majority of deaths have occurred in Asia, but cases in people and birds have also been recorded in Europe and Africa.

Almost all human infections so far are thought to have been caused by direct contact with sick poultry.

Family tragedy

Mr Cordingley said that the Sumatran cases presented a major puzzle, as they were the largest cluster of human cases to date.

"[This] is probably the most worrying incident so far since bird flu started nearly three years ago and we can't find any obvious source of infection. We can find no sign of infected chickens; no sign of the virus in the environment around where they live," he said.

All seven people who died were members of the same family. An eighth family member is also thought to have the disease.

So far investigators know that the initial victim was a woman, who became ill at the end of April. She died in early May and was buried before laboratory tests could be carried out.

The subsequent six victims - all of whom were positively identified as having the virus - had close and prolonged exposure to either her or other family members with the disease, the WHO said.

Clusters of bird flu cases are viewed with far more concern than isolated infections, because of the possibility of transmission between humans.

There have already been several cluster cases - such as one seen in Thailand in 2004 - although they have always involved fewer individuals than the Indonesian case.

But the possibility scientists are most worried about, genetic mutation of the virus, has been effectively ruled out in this case.

"Sequencing of all eight gene segments found no evidence of genetic reassortment with human or pig influenza viruses, and no evidence of significant mutations," the WHO said in a statement on Wednesday.

The WHO is continuing its investigations into the Sumatran case.

But the organisation says there is so much grief in the village that it is difficult for officials to get enough co-operation from local people to do their job.

Monday, May 22, 2006

Rachid Bouchareb: Morocco helped make 'Indigènes' shooting successful

The French Algerian filmmaker, Rachid Bouchareb, whose film is contesting for the Golden Palm in Cannes Festival, affirmed that Morocco supported him while he was shooting his film “Indigènes”.

The director said “I have been provided with all the means the country could provide me with, including limitless human resources.”

In an interview published by the French paper “Journal du Dimanche” , Bouchareb said that the Moroccan artist Jamel Debbouze made everything possible and that Morocco helped him because the story of the film is part of Moroccan history.

Starring Jamel Debbouze and Roschdy Zem, the film was shot in Morocco and France.

Shot during the first semester of 2005, the production should be released in August.

The jury of this 59th Cannes Film Festival, which is taking place on May 17-28, is presided over by the Chinese filmmaker, Wong Kar Wai. He will be the first Chinese president in the Festival's history.

The first Cannes Film Festival took place in 1946. Among the earliest award winners were directors Orson Welles, Luis Bunuel, Ingmar Bergman and Satyajit Ray.

Friday, May 19, 2006

Sensitisation campaign in Casablanca to fight cancer

An anti-cancer sensitization campaign was launched on Wednesday in Casablanca

The 30-day campaign aims to sensitize people on the disease and the importance of early screening and appropriate treatment, said the Moroccan first channel "TVM."

The campaign provides a toll-free number to listen to citizens' inquiries about the disease that touches some 40,000 persons in Morocco, including over 1,000 children. The campaign also includes diffusing radio and TV spots.

President of the scientific council Association, Taher Alaoui, told TVM that the campaign aims at raising people's awareness on the disease and the hazards of traditional treatment methods through a call center for persons wishing to contact specialists.

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Morocco calls on international oil companies

About 1 million km square of sedimentary basin in Morocco are under-tapped, said Energy and Mining Minister, Mohamed Boutaleb, calling on international oil companies to benefit from this potentia

"Despite our satisfaction with the large cooperation with international oil companies operating in Morocco, our subsoil is still under-developed," the minister stressed at the opening of the 4th "Maghreb and Mediterranean Oil and Gas 2006" conference.

The Mediterranean area, he said, offers huge opportunities in oil and gas production and exchanges, which creates an environment in favor of economic regional integration.

The 4th Maghreb and Mediterranean Oil and Gas Conference focuses on exploration and development, National Oil Companies, corporate and State strategies, new ventures, contracts and acreage licensing, as well as energy law and oil finance.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

UNHCHR delegation in Laayoune

A delegation of the UN High Commissioner for Human rights has started a visit to the Moroccan southern city of Laayoune to enquire about human rights in the southern provinces of the north African kingdom.

Delegation members, namely Christophe Giraud, Ms Rouieda Al Haj and Ms Karine Lick, arrived here on Tuesday after talks with several Moroccan officials in Rabat on the achievements made in Morocco concerning human rights, including the works of the Justice and Reconciliation Commission (IER - French acronym) created to examine human rights violations committed between 1956 and 1999.

Mahjoub Al Hiba, Secretary General of the Advisory Council for Human Rights (CCDH) told the delegation the council "processed all the files concerning the victims of past violations." The UN delegation was also briefed on the CCDH programs in the southern provinces, he added.

In Rabat, the delegation had talks with Khalihenna Ould Errachid, chairman of the Royal Advisory Council for Sahrawi Affairs (Corcas), set up to run Sahrawi local issues and part of a move to settle the Sahara issue through granting enlarged autonomy to the southern provinces of the country.

Morocco is presenting to the United Nations a proposal on autonomy for the provinces, known as the Sahara, object of a dispute that erupted in the mid seventies because of the claim of the Algeria-backed “Polisario” to separate the provinces from Morocco. The latter retrieved the provinces in 1976 in line with the Madrid accords.

Corcas chairman told the Moroccan TVM channel, after meeting the delegation, “people must not be punished for their political opinions, while security must be preserved,” adding no democratic country tolerates breaches to security.

Errachid said his talks with the delegation showed the “noble mission” of the UNO is part of reconciliation moves, not only with young people, but also with “all Sahrawis.” The UN delegation met in Rabat with MPs and human rights defenders, including personalities from the southern provinces who reiterated their condemnation of the human rights violations perpetrated in the camps of Tindouf, hosting Sahrawis lured by “Polisario” propaganda into south-west Algeria to shore up their separation claims.

Giraud had told the media in Rabat the delegation is to present a report to the UNHCHR after its information mission in Rabat, Laayoune, Tindouf and Algier.

The UN delegation also had talks with officials of the Moroccan Foreign Ministry, of the Advisory Council for Human Rights (CCDH) and several representatives.

Representative Ms Guejmoula Bent Abi said talks with the delegation “were frank, transparent and responsible.”

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

EU-Morocco fishing deal set to proceed

A delayed European fishing agreement with Morocco is set to go ahead next month after the European Union shelved a dispute over its implications for the long-standing conflict in the Western Sahara. The four-year agreement will see the EU pay Morocco €144m ($186m, £98m) in return for giving European fishing vessels (mainly Spanish and Portuguese) the right to trawl Morocco’s Atlantic coastal waters, including the sea off the disputed territory of Western Sahara.

A small group of EU countries led by Sweden and Finland, which have opposed the fishing agreement, said they would table a joint declaration this month making clear that “the fisheries agreement cannot prejudge any future political decision in relation to the Western Sahara issue”.

The agreement, signed after six years of negotiations, was meant to enter into force in March. Instead, it sparked a dispute between the southern European countries, whose fishermen want to catch more Moroccan sardines and anchovies, and Scandinavian countries that have little to gain from the fishing deal and instead want to resolve the vexed question of Morocco’s control of the Western Sahara, whose territorial waters are included in the deal.

Robin Rosenkranz, Swedish agricultural councillor in Brussels, said: “How can the EU on the one hand support the United Nations resolution and not recognise the annexation of the Western Sahara and on the other hand have a fisheries agreement with Morocco that covers the occupied areas? We want to be a neutral part in solving this conflict.”

Still, following a closed-door meeting of EU officials last week, the agreement is set to be endorsed by EU fisheries ministers on May 22. Members of the European parliament, which only has a consultative role in this issue, are also expected to vote for the deal this week.

Some MEPs and non- governmental organisations had also voiced concerns about the fishing deal and demanded from the European Commission proof that the inclusion of the Western Sahara would not violate international law.

In a formal response in February, Joe Borg, the EU’s fisheries commissioner, said the agreement respected international law and would not “prejudice the [Western Sahara] issue”. He also noted that the agreement made no direct reference to the Western Sahara and instead concerned “fishing waters over which the kingdom of Morocco has sovereignty or jurisdiction”.

The Swedish-led declaration, which is being put together this week, will also demand guarantees that the population of Western Sahara benefits directly from the fishing deal.

Monday, May 15, 2006

Four tons of hashish seized

The security services of the port of the northern town of Tangier, Morocco, has seized over four tons of hashish concealed in a TIR truck.

The vehicle, registered in Spain, was transporting vegetables from the Moroccan southern city of Agadir to Algesiras, southern Spain, but the port authorities found out the tachogram disk indicated a much longer distance than what should normally have been driven.

The truck, whose Spanish driver was arrested, was also trying to smuggle six would-be illegal immigrants.

Sunday, May 14, 2006

456 Migrants Intercepted off Spanish Islands

Spanish police and rescue vessels Saturday intercepted six boats carrying 456 illegal migrants off the coast of the Canary Island of Tenerife.

Saturday's figures elevate the total number of illegal immigrant arrivals to the Canary Islands this year to 5,984, the Interior Ministry said.

Thousands of people try to reach Europe through Spain each year, an increasing number of them setting off from Mauritania and Southern Morocco.

For decades, boats carrying immigrants have set out from Morocco, sailing north across the Strait of Gibraltar to the Spanish mainland or westward to the Canary Islands.

Last year authorities caught 4,751 African migrants trying to reach the Canary Islands, while at least 1,000 more are believed to have died during the crossing.

Those who are caught are kept in holding centers. Authorities have 40 days to repatriate or release them. The immigrants are either sent back to their country of origin or to the country from which they set sail, if Spain has a repatriation accord with it.

Saturday, May 13, 2006

Offshore Conference Investigates Global Possibilities

An American perspective on offshoring and outsourcing practices at the Offshoring Conference in Cairo in June.

"Companies across North America and Europe should waste no time in investigating offshore opportunities in Africa & the Middle East," says Datamonitor’s Peter Ryan. "There’s treasure to be mined and some of the world’s biggest names are already down there and digging."

Microsoft, Oracle, Intel, General Motors, British American Tobacco (BAT), Vodafone and Pfizer are just a handful of the global super-brands that have established sizeable operations in the region to serve both pan-regional and home markets. The time is ripe for further investigation and this year’s Offshore Customer Management International Conference is the ideal opportunity.

The conference, to be held in Cairo, will be opened by Egypt’s Minister of Communications & Information, Tarek Kamel. Given recent announcements that building the nation’s offshore contact centre and BPO industry will be his Ministry’s number one priority over the coming year, he should have a good deal to say.

Egypt has already taken strong steps to attract inward investment, most recently privatization of Telecom Egypt, and we can expect more to come. Egypt may be the region’s most developed market, but it’s not alone. Peter Ryan, Senior Analyst with Datamonitor, pinpoints the leaders:

Egypt: Egypt’s burgeoning contact centre industry, one of the most scaleable and cost effective in the world, will enjoy one of the most rapid growth profiles in global offshore outsourcing over the next few years. Particularly strong language skills plus high quality IT and engineering capabilities put it out front.

Morocco: Perhaps the most mature of the North African contact centre markets, Morocco has developed a strong niche serving French speaking locations and has considerable experience in the telco, technology, retail and financial services industries.

South Africa:
A tier one location for captive and outsourced operations. Quality standards are high and cultural affinity with the west – particularly in financial services – are a bonus.

Tunisia: A safe pair of hands for French focused back office and administrative work since the 90’s, government investments in industrial locations and technology suggest a planned move towards front office.

The conference recognises that offshore is no longer a nascent activity, but part of the business mainstream for companies across Europe and the US. “In this, the Second Age of Offshore, our delegates look to this conference to keep them ahead of the curve as their global strategies evolve,” says a spokesperson for the conference. “As well as bringing new opportunities to their attention, our speakers and case study presenters will deliver valuable lessons from past and current implementations.”

The conference will appeal most strongly to companies already engaged in offshore but looking for mature and detailed assessments of new developments, hot locations and emerging trends.

Friday, May 12, 2006

Egypt, Morocco, Israel to collaborate on dates market

The agreement was signed at an international conference on date growing organized by the 'Peres Center for Peace'.

Representatives of Israel, Egypt and Morocco have signed a regional agreement to develop the global date market at a conference on date growing held under the auspices of the Agritech 2006 16th International Agricultural Exhibition in Tel Aviv. The Peres Center for Peace organized the conference.

The basis of the date project will focus on consumer preferences, crop planning, irrigation, fertilizer, pesticides, and post-harvest handling. Farmers also plan to increase production of varieties in demand in export markets and which generate large sales.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Morocco counts over 600,000 children under 15 in the job market

Recent official statistics show that Morocco counts over 600,000 children under 15 in the job market, that is 11% of the country's 5.5 million children.

The Moroccan government has embarked on a national program called "Inqad" to fight employment of little girls as maids and help them better their lives.

The program, which was presented Tuesday, provides for an array of measures and calls for pooling efforts to reach the goals of the ten-year National Action Plan for the Childhood aiming to eradicate the labor of little girls, through opening new vistas for a better future where they can enjoy all their rights, according to authorities.

Inqad, which is presented by the State secretariat in charge of Family, Childhood and the Handicapped, also aims at re-integrating these domestic servants into society.

State secretary for family, children and the handicapped, Yasmina Badou, said Inqad adopts an integrated approach that requires the input of ministries, associations, media and all the parties working in favor of the child’s rights.

She recalled her department’s effort to promulgate an act that governs the work of children, especially in terms of legal age, which will outlaw the labor of children as domestic servants.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Morocco inmates discuss life behind bars

"This is Omar Maarouf calling from Kenitra Central Prison," said the dejected voice on the other end of the line.

The bizarre phone call was the second in two days from a prisoner inside the high-walled Kenitra prison, one of Morocco's most notorious lockups. It holds several death row inmates like Maarouf, who the government links to violent Islamic groups.

Fellow prisoner Abdelkebir Goumarra, serving a life sentence at Kenitra, called a day earlier, also without notice.

More disturbing than receiving such calls was the idea that high-security prisoners were able to use cell phones at one of the country's most restrictive prisons. But Goumarra said the 80 high-security prisoners at Kenitra mingle with other inmates, so he borrowed a cell phone.

He got this reporter's number from his wife, who had been interviewed earlier.

Goumarra, a Moroccan, and Maarouf, who has dual Danish-Moroccan citizenship, are accused of belonging to Salafiya Jihadiya, the name used by the government for the Islamic group blamed for the May 2003 suicide bombings in Casablanca that killed 45 people. Up to 3,000 people were arrested after the blasts.

Maarouf was already in prison and sentenced to death in connection with attacks carried out before the Casablanca blasts.

Goumarra, 36, surrendered to police four days after the bombings, after a warrant was issued and his picture appeared on television.

The men said in separate telephone interviews last week that they were innocent. Their only crime, they said, was having beards, wearing long robes that fall above the ankle typically worn by Taliban militants in Afghanistan, and praying in mosques.

"Maybe they found my number on one of the militants?" speculated Maarouf, adding that he is related to an imprisoned Islamic radical.

Human rights groups say many of those arrested for the Casablanca bombings had no connection to it.

Philip Luther of the London-based Amnesty International said the trials - especially those in the summer of 2003 - were conducted at breakneck speed. Defense lawyers complained they were not allowed to present witnesses and of government interference.

But Mohammed Lididi, a senior official at the Justice Ministry, said there was no mistake. "You will never find anyone in prison who will confess to his guilt. They all claim they are innocent."

Lididi said prisoners are not allowed cell phones, but "like any prison in the world, things do get smuggled into prison, including cell phones and drugs."

He said Morocco enjoyed an independent and just judiciary.

On the phone, the men described ordeals that were brutal and unexpected.

Goumarra said after he surrendered he was handcuffed, blindfolded and a sack placed on his head. He was held in secret detention, where he was "physically and psychologically tortured for seven days and nights," he said.

He was stripped of his clothes, made to sit on a Coke bottle and tortured "in sensitive areas of the body," he said. Interrogators also put his head in water and burned cigarettes on his body, he said.

Human rights groups say prisoners are routinely held in secret detentions and subjected to mistreatment - and sometime torture - while under interrogation in Morocco.

Later, in Casablanca, Goumarra said he was made to sign a document even though he cannot read.

Left behind were two of Goumarra's three wives with their five children in the house he built in Sidi Taibi, a shantytown south of Kenitra. A third wife lives in the capital's twin city, Sale, with her 3-year-old twin sons.

"I don't know what my man has done. If he killed, why don't they tell me who?" asked Fatiha Rahmouni, 30, Goumarra's second wife, revealing only her brown eyes through a slit in a black veil covering her face. Unlike the Islamic radicals who trained in Afghanistan or studied in radical religious schools in Pakistan, her husband has never left Morocco, she said.

Maarouf, whose wife and four children live in Denmark, was linked in 1998 by Belgian police to the extremist Algerian Armed Islamic Group.

Maarouf said he was "kidnapped" by Moroccan police in early 2003 as he arrived from Europe and was taken to a detention center in Tamara, south of Rabat.

In July 2003, he was sentenced to death. The Danish government has protested, but Morocco does not recognize dual nationality and considers Maarouf a Moroccan.

In the telephone interview, Maarouf introduced himself as the media representative of 56 Kenitra prisoners accused of belonging to the Salafiya Jihadiya. He said he issues statements to the Moroccan media via telephone or through prisoners' families.

He said he also was among 57 prisoners who began a hunger strike on May 2, demanding their cases be reopened because they had been fabricated.

"Everyone knows they were doing it under American pressures," said Goumarra, who said he is also refusing to eat.

"We've asked our families to bring us (burial) shrouds. We will either leave jail alive or in shrouds," said Maarouf. The wives of the prisoners plan a sit-in strike outside the prison May 16, the anniversary of the Casablanca bombings, said Rahmouni.

Asked how he passes the time, Maarouf, said: "What can I tell you? There's only despair in prison."

Prisons in Morocco are often overcrowded, and there are 1,700 men at Kenitra. Former inmates say the prison, with its high yellow stone walls and four towers, is cold all year round.

While 20 men are on death row, Morocco has not carried out an execution since 1993.

"I wish they would relieve me," said Maarouf, referring to his execution.

Then he added: "But we are optimistic. We expect a happy outcome. The government made many mistakes. It rushed into things. It turned into a theater."

"Regarding execution, they don't carry out death sentences in Morocco. They are now waiting .... "

The line went dead.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Europe puts Morocco on terror alert

European intelligence services have warned Morocco that terrorists are planning attacks on political, business and tourist targets in the North African country, the Al Ahdath Al Maghribia newspaper said on Tuesday.

"Moroccan security authorities received a message from their European counterparts warning of [potential] attacks targeting administrative, financial and tourist spots, as well as certain embassies and foreign interests in Morocco," the newspaper said, quoting "well-informed sources".

It said the groups, which were unnamed in the report, were plotting bomb attacks and assassinations.

A series of simultaneous bomb attacks in Morocco's commercial capital Casablanca in May 2003 left 45 people dead. More than 3 000 suspected militants have been arrested in the country since then.

Al Ahdath Al Maghribia said the tip-off from European investigators was based in part on information culled in interrogations of North African detainees held by German authorities in Frankfurt.

A second newspaper considered close to the government, Assahra Al Maghribia, said nine suspected terrorists had been arrested last week in Meknes, 140km east of Rabat.

It said another Islamist "from a country in the Gulf" had been detained on Saturday in Casablanca and that investigators were trying to determine the extent of his ties to extremist groups operating in Morocco.

Monday, May 08, 2006

Morocco sees 75pc increase in cereal output

Morocco is expecting cereals output to come in 75 per cent higher this year versus 2005 on better weather that spurred farmers to sow larger acreages, a government forecasts body said.

The Finance Ministry's Studies and Financial Forecasts Directory cited in a report published on Monday good conditions and expanded sowed areas among the factors behind the expected bumper cereals crop.

It said well distributed rainfall over the past eight months was more than 30 per cent higher than the same period last year when Morocco harvested about 4.0 million tonnes of cereals because of drought.

'The areas sowed in cereals totaled 5.2 million hectares, 2.0 per cent up compared to the previous period,' it added.

The drought last year cut cereals output to around 4.0 million tonnes from an average of 6.0 million tonnes in the last decade that slashed economic growth to 1.8 per cent in 2005 from an average growth of 4.8 per cent in the 2001-2004 period.

'All the positive factors are sure signs that the level of 70 million quintals (7.0 million tonnes) of cereals harvest of this year would be easily reached,' the department said.

It added: 'That will be an increase of 10 milion quintals (1.0 million) tonnes compared to the (6.0 million tonnes) level of cereals harvest forecast earlier this year by the government'.

The government and the International Monetary Fund expect Morocco's economy to grow by more than 6 per cent this year from an earlier growth forecast of 5.4 per cent on projected strong farming output.

Sunday, May 07, 2006

Casablanca French Institutes commemorates Moroccan goumiers

The Casablanca-based French Institute (IFC) will screen on May 11 a series of documentaries, commemorating the bravery of Moroccan goumiers.

For this occasion, a Yann Barte's film entitled “Oulad l'Viet Nam”, and co-produced by Ali'N Prod and ONA Foundation will be screened.

The film tells the story of Moroccan former soldiers in the French army, who went to Viet Nam after the exile of late Mohammed V. The former soldiers narrate their memories and their actual life after their return to Morocco with their children and Vietnamese wives.

The programme schedules the screening of “Mechti, the last fight”, a documentary co-produced by Grand Angle, France 3 and the Moroccan channel 2M.

The documentary pictures the story of Mohammed Mechti, 85, and his enlistment at the age of 18 by the French to create the first goumiers of the French liberation at the 2nd World War. The production sheds the light on the glorious but also painful moments that are now all his life.

Another entitled “General, nous voila!” (General, here we are!), directed by Ali Essafi and produced by IO Production et Images Plus, will also be programmed.

Friday, May 05, 2006


The Moroccan government is rescinding entry visas for a Hamas delegation, which planned to participate in a conference in Casablanca, according to the London-based Al-Quds Al-Arabi.

The delegation included Mousa Abu Marzouq and Muhammad Nazzal, both of whom belong to what is known as the political bureau of Hamas in Damascus, and the movement's representative in Lebanon, Usama Hamdan. Sources close to Hamas told the newspaper that the Moroccan Embassy in Damascus contacted members of the delegation and requested they return their passports, citing technical faults with their visas, but the visas were subsequently cancelled.

An embassy official explained that if they were to travel to Morocco, they would be sent back to the airport, and advised them not to go.

Hamas members were invited to participate in the National Arab Conference, which takes place every year in a different Arab city. More than 250 prominent personalities are expected to participate in this year's gathering.

Hamas has been facing diplomatic isolation from both Western countries and Arab states since its rise to power in January, because of its refusal to recognize Israel, to renounce terrorism and to accept previously signed agreements.

Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmad Abu Al-Gheit refused to meet Mahmoud A-Zahhar, who heads external relations in the Palestinian Authority, when A-Zahhar stopped over in Cairo on Thursday. This was the second time Cairo has snubbed Hamas representatives.

A-Zahhar is seeking financial aid and political support from Arab countries.

Jordanian officials have also refused to greet Hamas representatives in the country. Jordan and Egypt have peace agreements with Israel.

Thursday, May 04, 2006

Non-schooling, early drop out cost Morocco 1% of GDP

Non-schooling and early drop out cost Morocco 1% of its Gross Domestic Product (GDP), revealed a study published by the Moroccan Secretariat of State in charge of literacy and informal education.

Carried out in conjunction with the UNICEF, the document pointed out that "every extra primary school year is likely to increase one's salary by 12.7% compared to 10.4% for a secondary school year."

Recalling that the early drop out rate, estimated between 5 and 6%, hinders the schooling efforts, the study stresses that poverty is the decisive factor in school drop out decisions.

Estimated at 25% of Moroccans' minimum salary, the document notes that education costs may be disincentive for poor families though they are limited to the school year entry.

To make up for this situation, the report calls for revising the institutional, judicial and regulatory framework of informal education and improving coordination between public powers and rationalize the participation of civil society in this field.

It also urges for an incitation system for poor schooled children, in addition to a pedagogical, material and human system that would provide these children with educational support and favor their personal and socio-cultural development.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Moroccan Press union calls for nullification of criminal provisions from press code

The Moroccan Press Union (SNMP) has called for the removal of all criminal sanctions and of the imprisonment of journalists provided for by the Press Code, deeming it a pre-requisite for the success of the democratic process in Morocco.

A press release of the Union on the occasion of the World Press Freedom Day (May 3) also underlined the need to make of justice a "fundamental tool to disseminate the principles of justice and equity, an efficient means to preserve rights, and one of the tools of building democracy."

The document deplores certain "lingering practices" that restrict the freedom of the press, adding that the SNMP keeps a close eye on the development of the different media sectors.

Underlining that the "absence of a law organizing the right of access to information is one of the main obstacles to the practice of democracy," the Union deplores that such a deficit limits access to information relating to public affairs.

This means, it noted, "a lack of the transparency that should be guaranteed by a modern and democratic country."

A number of independent newspapers have been recently sentenced to huge sums of money that sent many of them bankrupt, while some journalists were sentenced to prison terms part of lawsuits including smearing, libel, and putting out false news.

On Wednesday, the Ministry of Communication published its annual report (the second after that of 2005) on “written press and the public audio-visual media.” The document gives an overall description of the sector and provides figures on the number of professional journalists and the implementation of the reforms agreed upon at the national conference held in March 2005.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

10,000 Nigerians Stranded in Morocco

Special Assistant to the Nigerian President on Migration and Humanitarian Affairs, Mrs Moremi Soyinka-Onijala has disclosed that about 10,000 Nigerians are currently stranded in Morocco, following their inability to migrate to Spain and other parts of Europe through North African routes.

Soyinka-Onijala spoke to THIS DAY (nigerian magazine), during the on going conference on internally displaced persons in the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) sub-region taking place in Abuja.

She said the Moroccan government is offended by the growing number of illegal immigrants from Africa, particularly Nigeria, who brave the turbulent Mediterranean ocean to reach Spain but end up in Morocco or Algeria. The current figure includes those that have been identified by the Nigerian embassy in Morocco and the Moroccan authorities, but it is thought that the figure is higher than that. She however added that the Nigerian government is collaborating with the Moroccan authorities to repatriate those already in police custody.

"The Moroccan government wants to send them back, we want to receive them and the President is very concerned. We are doing everything to bring them back. Our embassy rents a place for them to stay pending when we can bring them home", she said.

She also stated that some of the migrants have been in hiding for close to nine years, adding that they surrender themselves to the authorities when they can no longer bear the untold hardship associated with undocumented livelihood in a foreign land, including sleeping under cactus plants in the desert.

Soyinka-Onijala stated that for every ten Nigerians that go through the illegal route, only two survive, adding that "the migrants are also made to pay huge sums of money by human traffickers, sometimes to the tune of $15,000".

At a forum in Morocco recently, Soyinka-Onijala stated that the Nigerian government urged European countries to crack down on smugglers who are mainly from countries on the route to Spain. The human trafficking business, according to her, is increasingly becoming more lucrative than the drugs business.