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Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, April 1991, Page 38

Maghreb Mirror

Morocco Frees Family of Former Minister After 18 Years in Prison

By Jamal Amiar

One of the longest sagas of captivity in this century ended on Feb. 27 for eight Moroccans apparently held in a secret jail in Southern Morocco for 18 years. They are the wife, six children, and a cousin of General Mohammed Oufkir, once King Hassan II's minister of defense.

General Oufkir allegedly masterminded a coup attempt against his mentor on Aug. 16, 1972. The attempt to shoot down the king's aircraft failed, and General Oufkir was reported to have committed suicide on the same or the following day.

On Dec. 23, 1972, in Rabat, the eight members of his family were abducted by the Moroccan police. They simply disappeared for the following 18 years. Their crime, for which they were never tried, apparently was their relationship to the army officer once described as the most feared and hated man in Morocco.

A Man with an Iron Fist

Born in the 1920s, Mohammed Oufkir spent 15 years in the French army, fighting in World War II and again in Indochina.

During the French protectorate in Morocco, Oufkir was an aide to four French governors, and worked closely with the French intelligence services. At Morocco's independence, Oufkir became the head of Moroccan police services. From 1956 on, he was in charge of the regime's security.

At the helm of power at age 35, Mohammed Oufkir had developed increasingly close relations with the late King Mohammed and with then-Crown Prince Hassan.

In 1958, with the then-crown prince, Oufkir led the fight against a separatist movement in Northern Morocco's Rif region. In 1961, with King Hassan as the new head of state, Oufkir was nominated home secretary.

His powers increased after 1963, when he helped counter a coup attempt against the king. In March 1965, it was Oufkir who gave the order to police to fire on demonstrators in Casablanca.

In October of the same year, he was in Paris when Moroccan opposition leader Mehdi Ben Barka was kidnapped and killed in France. A French court sentenced Oufkir to jail in absentia, but Rabat did not authorize his extradition and Oufkir remained a member of the Moroccan government.

On July 9, 1971, after the failure of another military coup, Oufkir became the kingdom's minister of defense. As his powers increased, however, so apparently did his ambition.

A year later, on Aug. 16, 1972, the new minister of defense allegedly ordered Moroccan military aircraft to shoot down the royal plane flying King Hassan back to Rabat from a visit to France. The assassination attempt failed, however, and a few days later it was officially announced that Oufkir had committed suicide.

A Family Disappears

After a little more than four months of mourning, on Dec. 23, 1972, Oufkir's widow, their six children, aged three to 18, and the general's cousin were kidnapped in Rabat and sent to a secret jail.

The reason behind the move, according to various observers, was that files belonging to General Oufkir and which were believed to have contained information embarrassing to the monarchy, were not found after his death. Others believe some of King Hassan's advisers authorized the move to dissuade others from trying to mount a coup or assassination attempt as Oufkir allegedly did.

In any event, the fate of the Oufkir family did not raise much concern in Morocco. People close to the palace who might have been able to plead for the family's freedom feared being perceived as not faithful enough to the monarchy, or as too naive, since members of the Oufkir family probably did have access to information that could affect Moroccan domestic politics.

Further, to the general public, Oufkir was probably the most hated man in the country's contemporary history. He was the man in charge of the kingdom's security apparatus, and he is still remembered as a man who personally tortured political prisoners.

Tall, skinny, and always pictured in military uniform and wearing dark glasses, Oufkir looked like a blend of Chile's General Pinochet and Poland's General Jaruzelski.

The Hour of Freedom Approaches

Despite the lack of public interest in the fate of General Oufkir's family, they did not disappear without a trace. In the spring of 1987, four of the Oufkir children escaped from their jail. Malika, Abdellatif, Raouf and Iman reached the northern town of Tangiers, but were caught by the police before they could flee to Spain.

During their brief period of freedom, however, Malika, the oldest daughter, had time to telephone the Paris-based Radio France Internationale. She also got in touch with human rights activist and lawyer Georges Kiejman.

After the Oufkir children were returned to jail, Kiejman began secret negotiations with the Moroccan government seeking freedom for the Oufkir family. He extracted a promise that the family would be freed and allowed to fly to Canada in the fall. Money was transferred to a bank account in Ottawa, the Canadian Embassy granted the necessary visas, but at the last minute no one was freed.

A few weeks later, Kiejman took the case to the French media and denounced human rights violations in Morocco. French human rights associations and Amnesty International joined the fight, as did Ms. Danielle Mitterand, the French president's spouse.

In the fall of 1990, the Oufkir case attracted additional attention in Europe when French author Giles Perrault published his best-seller, Our Friend the King (Notre Ami le Roi), a very critical account of Morocco's human rights record, including what was known about the 18-year seclusion of the Oufkir family.

The Moroccan government asked the French government to prohibit the sale of the book. The French refusal to do so cast a shadow over French-Moroccan relations that lasted throughout the remainder of 1990.

Finally, on Feb. 27, 1991, the Oufkir family was freed.

A Long-Awaited Move

It was front-page news in both countries, although Moroccan newspapers made no editorial comment about it. In France, however, author Perrault expressed "his deep joy," predicting it was "a first step towards the liberation of all Moroccan political prisoners." Human rights organizations estimate the number of such prisoners at between 250 and 300.

Kiejman, who is now the French undersecretary of justice, also expressed the wish that "that step would be followed by others."

In Morocco, social tensions are high, exacerbated by a general strike last Dec. 14, and by the war in the Gulf. Overseas, human rights organizations have increasingly targeted Morocco's record, noting that King Hassan's move in freeing the Oufkir family will have no significance unless it is followed by other human rights measures.

Jamal Amiar is a US-educated radio journalist based in Tangier, Morocco.