- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 19, 2003

CASABLANCA, Morocco — Armed with new antiterror laws, Morocco sentenced four men to death and 83 others to prison yesterday in a trial focusing on deadly terror attacks that raised fears Islamic extremism is spreading in the North African nation.

The four sentenced to death were convicted of plotting to blow themselves up in the May 16 suicide attacks in the coastal city of Casablanca that killed 33 bystanders and a dozen suicide bombers.

They were among dozens of defendants in the trial of members of an outlawed clandestine Moroccan group, Salafia Jihadia, which has been linked to Osama bin Laden’s al Qaeda terror network.

Officials said 83 other defendants were convicted of being members of Salafia Jihadia. Charges included threatening state security or taking part in a criminal association. Thirty-nine were sentenced to life in prison for helping prepare unsuccessful attacks in tourist attractions, including the historic city of Marrakech and two beach resorts, Agadir and Essaouira.

Morocco is desperate to avoid the kind of full-blown Islamic insurgency that has ravaged its neighbor Algeria for more than a decade, taking an estimated 120,000 lives. Parliament passed new anti-terrorism laws calling for tougher punishments and longer detentions after the blasts.

But many fear the growing violence is now leading to a repressive government crackdown and reversing King Mohammed VI’s efforts to bring greater democracy to the North African nation.

Yesterday’s verdict “was very surprising and even incomprehensible,” said Muhammad Ziyane, a lawyer and former government minister for human rights.

Mr. Ziyane said he was particularly shocked by the 30-year sentences meted out to three spiritual leaders of the Salafia Jihadia group. They included Muhammad Fizazi, 55, who previously preached at a mosque in Hamburg, Germany, frequented by some of the hijackers who carried out the September 11, 2001, attacks in the United States.

In February, a Moroccan court sentenced three Saudis to 10 years in prison for their part in an al Qaeda plot to attack U.S. and British warships in the Strait of Gibraltar that separates Morocco and Spain.

Security was extremely tight for yesterday’s hearing, with defendants lined up behind a bulletproof glass shield and a metal detector in the courtroom. When the verdicts were announced, defendants cried, “God is great.”

A defense attorney said the defendants would appeal in the country’s Supreme Court.

The trial was the first of several expected for hundreds of suspects connected to the Casablanca attacks.

The dozen suicide bombers who died in the May blasts used explosives stuffed into backpacks that they detonated nearly simultaneously in a major downtown hotel as well as Jewish and Spanish sites.

Justice Minister Muhammad Bouzoubaa has said that more than 1,000 suspected Islamic militants are facing legal proceedings for terrorism-related activities across Morocco.

Morocco has not carried out the death sentence since 1993. In July, a Moroccan court sentenced 10 Islamic extremists to death for their roles in a series of slayings,.

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