MOROCCO: 'Superterrorist' Belliraj denies accusations, claims torture
The accusations read like a spy novel. Following his arrest in early 2008, Moroccan authorities linked 52-year-old Abdelkader Belliraj, a Belgian citizen of Moroccan descent, with virtually every known terrorist on record.
Belliraj allegedly met with Al Qaeda's Osama bin Laden and Ayman Zawahiri during the week preceding the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001; was granted a private audience with Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah; and was tied to six murders in Brussels, Belgium, during the 1980s -- four of them as a hit man for Abu Nidal, the Palestinian militant whose organization is credited by the U.S. State Department with terrorist attacks in 20 countries, killing or injuring almost 900 people.
Belliraj allegedly confessed to all these allegations under interrogation by Moroccan police but retracted everything at his trial, claiming he had been tortured. He was convicted and received a life sentence in July 2009, together with dozens of other defendants, who received sentences of two to 25 years in prison.
Last week, as his trial was set to start in a court in Sale, near the Moroccan city of Rabat, Belliraj gave interviews to two Belgian newspapers on a cellphone that had been smuggled into his cell.
Morocco, Belliraj told De Morgen (in Flemish), "wanted to eliminate certain opposition parties by making them into terrorists. In order to do so, they needed to link them to a 'terrorist,' someone they could randomly accuse of any number of crimes without anyone being able to verify the facts."
Several of Belliraj's co-defendants are Moroccan politicians belonging to Islamic or left-wing parties; one was a correspondent for Al-Manar, a TV station belonging to the Lebanese Shia militant group Hezbollah.
On Feb. 19, at a meeting in Rabat to celebrate the release of one of the defendants, Hamid Najibi of the Unified Socialist Party (PSU), left-wing and Islamist politicians alike spoke of a "prefabricated trial" meant to discredit the opposition in Morocco.
In the interview, Belliraj also said he was tortured in the weeks preceding his official arrest. The torture allegedly took place at the detention center of Morocco's internal secret service, called the DST, at Temara, near Rabat. Amnesty International has in the past repeatedly accused Morocco of torture at the Temara facility.
"I was hung upside down for hours on end. They beat me on a daily basis, sometimes with a stick, other times with a whip. They gave me electrical shocks," Belliraj said.
Human Rights Watch and other human-rights organizations have asked Morocco to address the torture allegations in the Belliraj trial. The Belgian media, which were quick to dub Belliraj a "superterrorist," have been obsessed with the case from the start -- not just because of the six murders in Brussels, but also because Morocco has alleged that Belliraj was secretly an agent for Belgian state security.
Although the Belgian intelligence service has never confirmed or denied the fact, it said in a recently published report, "There are no elements to suggest that [Belliraj and his associates] were involved in any terrorist activity or to link him to the six murders of which the network is accused."
The most prominent of the Belgian murders was the double homicide of Abdullah Adhal El Hasi, the imam of the Saudi-financed Great Mosque of Brussels, and his assistant, Salem Bahri, in 1989, apparently because El Hasi had opposed the fatwa against Salman Rushdie.
In the same year, a driver for the Saudi ambassador in Brussels was shot dead in what was apparently a failed attempt on a Saudi diplomat, and a prominent Belgian Jewish leader, Joseph Wybran, was gunned down in the parking lot of the Brussels hospital where he worked as a surgeon.
Two other murders in 1988 Belliraj allegedly carried out on his own account: Raoul Schouppe, a Brussels grocery-shop owner, because he thought he was Jewish, and Marcel Bille, because he frequented Moroccan male prostitutes in Brussels.
Four of the murders were claimed at the time by Palestinian organizations in Beirut, but those claims were never verified.
According to Mohamed Darif, a professor of political science at Hassan II University in Mohammedia, the Belliraj case has to be seen in the light of Morocco's fear of an alleged Shiite threat to its security and that of other Sunni countries in the region.
"After Hezbollah's victory against Israel in the 2006 war, the establishment of a Shiite government in Iraq and the constant threat of a war between the United States and Iran, Morocco was afraid of repercussions at home," Darif said during an interview at his office in Casablanca.
Rabat was especially wary of the growing popularity of Shiite leaders such as Hezbollah's Hassan Nasrallah and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad among Sunni Muslims, not just in Morocco, but also among the Moroccan immigrant communities in Europe.
One of the accusations against Belliraj is that he is a convert to Shiite Islam. Some of the other defendants are said to have created a clandestine organization back in the early 1980s in an attempt to overthrow the Moroccan monarchy, modeled on the 1979 Iranian revolution. "They basically dug up all the old files against Shiites or Shiite sympathizers in Morocco," Darif said.
In the beginning of 2009, Morocco severed diplomatic relations with Iran, accusing the Iranian Embassy in Rabat of "intolerable interference in the internal affairs of the kingdom" and of engaging in activities that "threatened the religious unity" of the country.
-- Gert Van Langendonck in Rabat, Morocco
Photo: Abdelkader Belliraj, center. Credit: EPA