By Naoufel Cherkaoui
Following a Mouled royal pardon of three jihadist ideologues, Salafists and the Moroccan government may open a new page of reconciliation.
The Joint Committee for the Defence of Political Prisoners organised a press conference on February 9th in Rabat to discuss whether the pardons could signal a new approach in the way authorities deal with repentant radicals.
The event was attended by the three pardoned Salafist jihadist sheikhs: Hassan Kettani, Mohamed Rafiki (known as Abou Hafs) and Omar Haddochi.
The three men were imprisoned following the 2003 Casablanca bombings.
Kettani was found guilty of encouraging those behind the Casablanca attacks and sentenced to 20 years in prison. He professed his innocence, saying that he was imprisoned unjustly. Haddochi was handed a 30-year prison term.
“Morocco chose to undertake reforms, averting the horrors and tragedies that have occurred in other Arab countries,” Kettani said at the conference. “And these reforms, no matter how positive, have some shortcomings and criticisms. Any change can only be done through a comprehensive national reconciliation through closing the file, by opening the doors of prisons and releasing the detainees.”
A long-time jihadist ideologist, Abou Hafs was among the first Moroccans to be sent to Afghanistan to fight the Soviet army. Upon return to Morocco, he launched a campaign to promote religious ideas modelled on Wahhabism.
He was sentenced to 20 years in jail in connection with the Casablanca attacks. Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) put him at the top of a list of twenty prisoners whose liberty the terrorist group hoped to buy in exchange for the three Spanish aid workers kidnapped in Mauritania in 2010.
Speaking at the conference, Abou Hafs said he was sure of their release after the start of the Arab Spring.
“Hopes of our release increased after the victory of the Justice and Development Party (PJD) in the last parliamentary elections, and its leader assuming the head of the Moroccan government,” he said. “The matter became certain after the appointment of lawyer Mustafa Ramid as justice minister, known for his activity towards resolving what is known as the Salafist-jihadist file.”
Discussants also evoked the possibility of the state changing its policy of dealing with Salafist jihadists, especially after the Islamist PJD took charge of the new government.
Islamic group expert Mohamed Darif, however, doubted that there was any correlation between the new Islamist government and the state’s desire to resolve the issue. “The series of pardons appeared before the arrival of that government; the state is adopting a certain standard, regardless of the nature of the present government,” he said.
The royal decree came in the context of political changes under way in Morocco, Justice Minister Mustafa Ramid said.
“The royal initiative shows that while being rigorous in its efforts to maintain security, the state is holding out an olive branch, though the royal pardon, to prisoners who have proven and expressed their willingness to make a positive contribution to public life and shun extremism,” Ramid said in a statement to MAP.
“I took on the responsibility of asking for their release, as the solution can only be through royal pardon because there is no other way to resolve it,” Ramid explained.
A new contingent of Salafist detainees may be released soon, he added.
“If prisoners behave in a responsible manner, this could encourage the king to grant another pardon,” he said