issue 163 - September 1986
Memories of Morocco
I was 19 when I was arrested. I knew I was in danger; there were always horror stories about torture... but I was politically involved and I understood there was a risk.
I was a member of a radical organisation when I was studying at the University of Rabat. We tried to start a political debate In Morocco: about development and underdevelopment about socialism, Marxism and Islam. An underground newspaper was produced and we demanded freedom of expression and organisation.
The political security police broke into my house on 9 January 1976. It wasn't a legal form of arrest, I just 'disappeared', and that night I was tortured from midnight to 5 o'clock in the morning. They used the classical methods: binding the hands and feet of my naked body to an iron bar and whipping the soles of my feet while forcing my head back in a bucket of excrement.
For them it was a big party, they were enjoying themselves, drinking whisky... happy that they had got somebody. They asked questions about other activists and said things like: 'You want to destroy our traditions, our monarchy and our nation - you people in the opposition are all Marxists and atheists'.
I was finally taken to a notorious secret detention centre in Casablanca. They took my clothes and told me I must forget my name and be known only by a number. For three days they wouldn't let me sleep and then I spent eight months blindfolded and handcuffed. There were no beds; we slept on the floor, and were all tortured.
After the eight months I was put in an ordinary prison in Casablanca. Realising we were not going to be tried, over 100 prisoners started a hunger strike. Fortunately King Hassan was on a visit to France at that time, and he had to face people there who had started a solidarity campaign on our behalf. After 17 days he was forced to send his Justice Minister to agree to a trial.
We tried to speak out at the trial about the torture and the horrible police stations - but they wouldn't let us. Nor could we express our political ideas. Lawyers who tried to defend us were intimidated, and many of them gave up during the trial. Others were prosecuted afterwards.
Five people got life, others 20 or 30 years the minimum was five years.
We were transferred to the biggest prison In Morocco - and isolated. Two visitors were allowed for ten minutes a week, behind two sets of bars and guards. Families would come a long way, and find they could hear nothing above all the shouting.
We started another hunger strike - it was our ultimate weapon. They had forbidden us to receive books for university courses and to study ... so we had good reason to protest. On the fortieth day a prisoner died, a woman, an English teacher called Saida Menebhi.
At this point an international campaign was launched on our behalf. Amnesty International and the French 'Comite de Lutte contre Ia repression en Maroq', and smaller legal associations. The authorities were forced to negotiate, and they agreed with all our demands except the right to get radio and newspapers, so we stopped the hunger strike. But just a few weeks later the King and the Justice Minister denied that there were any political prisoners in Morocco and said that Amnesty International had made allegations against the country for political reasons; It was a 'conspiracy from abroad'.
So we went on hunger strike again, and this time were very quickly repressed. The group was dispersed into different prisons for a year, before we were reassembled at the main prison. But after this the situation did improve; the campaign groups outside were very effective, the Moroccan regime being very sensitive to European opinion.
After eight years in prison, I was released, to my amazement, when the professor in Paris with whom I had been doing my doctorate (by correspondence) wrote to the King. A few months later 33 others were released. But still I suffered police persecution; I was not allowed to leave my home town without authorisation and had to report to the police every week.
In January 1984, two months after my release, there were riots following increases in food prices. I was re-arrested for two weeks. They had picked up everyone with a political record. Some had only been arrested once as students and had radically changed their ideas. But they were still on the computer. I knew then that I'd be re-arrested on any similar occasion. They had refused to give me a passport so I decided to leave illegally.
That was in February 1985, and I think the situation is getting worse. There is no tradition of human rights in Morocco; it's quite normal to see someone beaten up on the streets by policemen - people don't react. During the 1950s the French police would rope people together and tour round the town before bringing them to the police station like cattle. People are used to it; detention and torture are everyday events In Morocco.
I would like to go back, of course, but not just to be arrested at the airport.
Jamal Benomar is a Moroccan exile living in London. He was interviewed by Sarah Gellner.
This first appeared in our award-winning magazine - to read more, subscribe from just £7