Human rights group fears worst in terror suspect’s death

Demands open investigation to rule out torture

Monday 9 June 2003, by Andrew ELKIN

Moroccan human rights campaigners are calling for an independent autopsy in the death of a man police say organized the May 16 suicide bombings in Casablanca.

The death of Abdelhaq Bentassar was announced on May 28 by Casablanca Crown prosecutor Abdellah Alaoui Belghiti, who cited severe heart and liver problems as the cause. However, contradictions have emerged between the official story of the man’s arrest and health status and that of his family, leading to fears that the death may have come through torture at the hands of police.

"We have some serious worries regarding the death of Abdelhaq Bentassar," said Abdelillah Benabdesslam of the Moroccan Association for Human Rights (AMDH). "We have uncovered several contradictions with the prosecutor’s statement, and so we are calling for an open investigation."

The AMDH has sent a letter to Moroccan Minister of Justice Mohamed Bouzoubaa requesting a full investigation of Bentassar’s death and a third-party autopsy.

Interviewed by the Fez section of the AMDH, Bentassar’s wife denied many details of the Crown prosecutor’s statement. The official account claims that Bentassar was arrested on the evening of May 26 in Fez, fell ill due to long-standing health problems and died the next day on the way to hospital. A subsequent autopsy revealed evidence of a heart attack and liver damage, the Crown prosecutor said.

According to Bentassar’s wife, however, the suspect was arrested in front of his home by Fes police on May 21. She said her husband, who was 30, maintained perfect health, played soccer daily and had never taken medication.

On May 22, Bentassar’s wife said, police returned to the house and seized books, personal papers and some other items. The woman was then called in overnight from May 26 to 27 for questioning by police. She says investigators asked her to sign a statement to the effect that her husband was in a state of flight. She refused.

Bentassar, identified in media reports last week as Abdelhaq Moulsabbat, was the ’emir,’ Arabic for commandant, of the group that carried out the May 16 attacks. Police say he was named by the three suicide bombers who were supposed to take part in the May 16 attacks, but who abandoned their mission at the last minute.

One of those three also died last week, reportedly of injuries he sustained in the blast at Casablanca’s Hotel Farah.

The discrepancy between the two versions of Bentassar’s arrest has led to the theory that Fez police tortured Bentassar to get him to give up more details and names involved in the attacks. Bentassar’s death could indicate not only serious human rights abuses, but also the loss of a key figure in the May 16 attacks.

"Unfortunately, his health condition prevented investigators from completing their work," Crown prosecutor Belghiti said.

The AMDH is keen to follow up on the statement by the palace on May 20 that the investigation of the terror attacks will be transparent.

"We must turn these promises into action," said Benabdesslam.

There are an estimated 50,000 torture victims in Morocco. Most were detained by the regime of former King Hassan II after two failed coups d’etat in 1972 or for links to Islamist, republican and human rights groups.

Human Rights Watch has alleged that the U.S. government sends some terror suspects to Morocco to be ’interrogated’ out of the spotlight. This is despite the fact that US State Department has criticized Morocco for using torture as recently as this year.

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