Moroccan court jails militant Islamist gang

Tue Jul 28, 2009 8:39am EDT

(Adds Belliraj comment in fifth paragraph)

By Zakia Abdennebi

RABAT, July 28 (Reuters) - More than 30 members of an Islamist extremist gang were jailed on Tuesday for crimes ranging from murder to stockpiling guns and explosives in readiness for attacks against the state, a Moroccan court said.

Abdelkader Belliraj, 50, the head of the group was jailed for life, while other accused cell members were handed prison terms of between two years and 30 years.

Human rights campaigners said the trial had been politically-motivated and that the convictions were suspect.

Among those convicted were several politicians, a number of teachers and a television reporter.

The state prosecutor had demanded the death sentence for Belliraj, a Moroccan-born Belgian national who denied the charges and said he had been tortured into a confession.

The Moroccan security services also say Belliraj was the author of six assassinations in Belgium between 1986 and 1989, cases which the Belgian police failed to solve.

"I lived in Belgium for more than 40 years and no policeman came knocking at my door to accuse me of trafficking weapons or killing anyone," Belliraj said during the trial. "I am an Islamist, but I have no plan to overthrow the regime."

Security officials regard the case as evidence religious extremist cells have become more international to evade detection since suicide bombings killed 45 people in Casablanca in 2003 and sparked a crackdown across Morocco.

The north African kingdom has a reputation as a moderate, stable Western ally which helped draw a record 8 million tourists last year, alleviating widespread poverty.

Human rights campaigners accused the police of torture and falsifying key documents used as evidence.

"This verdict shows that the Moroccan judicial system is under orders," said Khadija Riyadi, head of Morocco's leading independent human rights group AMDH. "This had nothing to do with a fair trial."

The government said the Belliraj gang posed an unusually potent threat because it included supposedly moderate politicians and had planned to infiltrate state institutions.

The suspects had been held in prison since their arrest early in 2008.



MODERATE DEMOCRATS

Three leading Islamist politicians with a reputation as moderate democrats were given sentences of 25 years.

"These verdicts are extremely severe and the accusations against the defendants were baseless," said Sakina Kada, wife of TV journalist Abdelhafid Sriti who was jailed for 20 years.

"They did not have any tangible proof against any of the 35 people accused in the case."

Interior Minister Chakib Benmoussa said last year the group had established a political party as a cover for its militant activities.

He said Belliraj had been active since the 1970s in trying to undermine the secular-leaning Moroccan monarchy and that he had formed links with Al Qaeda and was planning to attack government ministers, senior army officers and Moroccan Jews.

The gang had carried out a series of hold-ups to fund its activities, Benmoussa said.

Defence lawyers said they would appeal against the verdicts. They complained after the men's arrests that court officials refused to show them evidence about the accused and had refused them access to their clients. (Additional reporting by Hassan Alaoui; Writing by Tom Pfeiffer; Editing by Matthew Jones)