|Al-Ahram Weekly Online
12 - 18 July 2001
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Raising the deadThe Moroccan leadership thought the unresolved disappearance of Ben Barka was buried decades ago, but even acid can't wash their hands of this mess, writes Rasha Saad
Though the mystery of what happened to Moroccan opposition leader Mehdi Ben Barka after his disappearance in Paris in 1965 was never satisfactorily explained, the events leading up to his murder have painted a murky picture of the involvement of the Moroccan authorities. Now, that mystery is likely to be resolved, and accusations climb all the way to the top.
Earlier this month, a former Moroccan secret agent, Ahmed Boukhari, told the French newspaper Le Monde and the Moroccan newspaper Le Journal new details about the kidnapping, torture and death of Ben Barka in Paris. "I decided to speak so that the Moroccan people -- starting with Ben Barka's family -- could find out what really happened," Boukhari said.
Ben Barka had once been the late King Hassan II's mathematics teacher and, briefly, his political mentor. But the former teacher and student quarrelled over Hassan's autocratic and brutal regime and Ben Barka began spending more time abroad. In 1963, the opposition leader was condemned to death in absentia for undermining state security by fomenting riots against the monarchy. A consort of the era's anti-imperial and anti-colonial leaders, Ben Barka was said to jet between Moscow and Havana while residing mainly in Switzerland.
According to Le Monde's account of the story painted by Boukhari, King Hassan ordered the kidnapping and assassination of Ben Barka on 25 March 1965, after especially bloody riots in Casablanca had caused hundreds of deaths. Over the next seven months, the exile's movements were closely tracked.
What is known about Ben Barka's disappearance in 1965 centres on reports that a French journalist and film director were paid to approach Ben Barka in Paris for help with a movie about the end of colonialism. Ben Barka was waiting to meet them outside the Brasserie Lipp when two French policemen drove up and arrested him. His family and friends never saw him again.
The account given by the two newspapers fills in the rest. According to Boukhari, Ben Barka was taken to a château south of Paris, where Moroccan Interior Minister Mohamed Oufkir had flown in expressly to torture him in person. The intention had been to bring Ben Barka back to Morocco and murder him there, so as to avoid embarrassing the French authorities. But he died in Paris -- according to Boukhari, while handcuffed and suspended from a rope.
Boukhari apparently did not skimp on details. He recounts that the skin of Ben Barka's chest had been repeatedly slashed with a stiletto in a drunken rage by Oufkir. With the murder completed too soon, Ben Barka's body had to be smuggled back to Morocco, via Orly airport, with the connivance of the French authorities. There, his remains were dissolved in a giant vat of acid, which had been built by the Moroccan security services specifically to get rid of dead opposition leaders.
As if this picture is not grim enough, Boukhari's account spares no one. Reports by the two newspapers also reveal US involvement in the operation. At the time, Ben Barka was reportedly regarded by US officials as a troublemaker, especially in light of his contacts with late Egyptian President Gamal Abdel-Nasser and alleged plans of an anti- American conference in Havana. Pleased to do so little for so much in return, the CIA allegedly provided the plans and technical specifications for the vat used by Moroccan security services. The entire operation to kidnap Ben Barka, the two newspapers said, was undertaken with CIA approval. The French authorities may not have known about it beforehand, but they certainly conspired with the Moroccans -- in the name of good post-colonial relations and to prevent Morocco from falling wholly under US influence -- to allow Ben Barka's body to be smuggled back to Rabat.
A French court later sentenced Oufkir to life in prison for his part in the affair. He was never given up by the Moroccan authorities, but was murdered -- according to one account, by King Hassan himself -- after leading an unsuccessful coup d'état in 1972.
Shocked by the revelations, Morocco's human rights groups, as well as the ruling Socialist Union of Popular Forces (USFP) party and the opposition Democratic Avant- Garde Party, have urged Moroccan Prime Minister Abdel- Rahman Al-Youssoufi to order a trial of Moroccan officials who were allegedly involved in the killing of the charismatic leftist leader, including Boukhari. The USFP politburo said it would soon lodge a complaint at the Rabat court of appeals. In a statement sent to the Moroccan justice minister, the USFP called on the Ministry of Justice "to assume its responsibility and launch an independent inquiry."
Boukhari's revelations are likely to have grave consequences in Rabat. According to political observers, the gruesome story will embarrass both Al-Youssoufi and the royal palace. Al-Youssoufi -- a lawyer who was a member of the defence team at the 1967 trial in France of Ben Barka's "killers" -- heads the USFP, an offshoot of a party Ben Barka co-founded in 1959 that has been in power since 1998.
State-run media has imposed a news blackout on the revelations. The only report that came up was on Friday, a week after the story broke, when Morocco's official MAP news agency reported on the decision by USFP to call for a judicial inquiry and published lengthy extracts from a communiqué issued in Paris by Ben Barka's family. With high- ranking intelligence figures mentioned in Boukhari's disclosure, the expected trial will open up files that have been closed for 36 years.
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