700 on trial for suicide bombings in Morocco
By Isambard Wilkinson in Madrid
Seven hundred people will go on trial in Morocco next week in connection with the suicide bomb attacks that killed 44 people two months ago, the government said yesterday.
The trials, the scale of which astonished human rights groups, will take place in the capital, Rabat, and in Casablanca, where 12 suicide bombers blew themselves up in five almost simultaneous blasts on May 16.
"The trials will involve 700 suspects
some are directly linked to the attacks
others belonged to groups which have been preparing acts of violence in the country," Mohamed Bouzoubaa, the justice minister, said on state television.
The figure of 700 is four times the number of Islamist suspects estimated by Morocco's independent press to have been arrested in police raids throughout the country in the past two months.
It was thought that 187 had been held. The government has said some of the suspects have indirect links to Osama bin Laden's al-Qa'eda network.
Moroccan commentators have expressed fears that the government has launched a no-holds-barred campaign against Islamists.
"There is deep concern that freedoms that have been won under Mohammed VI will be lost and that there will be a return to the conditions experienced under his father, Hassan II," said Aboubakr Jamal, the editor of the newspaper Le Journal.
After the bombings a senior court official said: "Morocco has the means to deal with fanatics and will deal with them".
At the weekend Morocco sent religious radicals an unequivocal message by sentencing 10 of them to death for murdering several people they thought had violated Islamic customs. The bombs in Casablanca and the prospect of radical Islamists growing in influence have raised the spectre of Morocco descending into a spiral of conflict, in the same way as its neighbour, Algeria.
Mohammed Darif, a professor of political science and expert on Moroccan terrorism, said the origins of the Casablanca attacks were rooted partly in the spate of arrests in Morocco after the September 11 attacks on America.
Dozens of suspects were tortured and then released, "converting peaceful Salafists [literalist Muslims] into terrorists", he said.
Morocco has hitherto been marked by its moderate expression of Islam, with religious sentiment carefully marshalled by the secret police. Over-zealous preachers have been imprisoned, hardline mosques closed and radical Islamist parties banned.
The country's legal Islamist party, the Justice and Development Party (PJD), a moderate group, more than doubled its share of the vote in elections last year to become Morocco's third strongest party.
The PJD benefited from the new spirit of democracy that has been embraced by King Mohammed, 39, since he ascended the throne in 1999, but some courtiers say he has unleashed forces he will be unable to control.
An outlawed group - the Justice and Spirituality Party, whose charismatic leader, Sheikh Abdessalam Yassine, is sometimes referred to as the "Khomeini of Morocco" - is judged by many to be the most popular political force in the country.
The last Islamist party to prosper in a North African election was the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) in Algeria, which won the first round of voting in 1991.
The military cancelled the result, sparking a civil war that has killed 100,000.