October 2, 2009 / 2:57 PM / 10 years ago

France seeks arrests in Moroccan political kidnap

PARIS (Reuters) - France has issued international arrest warrants for four Moroccans over the 1965 abduction of a high-profile opponent to Morocco’s then King Hassan II, an event that has embarrassed the two nations for four decades.

France's President Nicolas Sarkozy delivers a speech to present his plan for social reform amongst youths in Avignon, southern France, September 29, 2009. REUTERS/Philippe Wojazer

The head of Morocco’s Royal Gendarmerie and a former intelligence chief are among the suspects being sought.

Mehdi ben Barka, a hero for the international left, was kidnapped in broad daylight in front of the smart Lipp restaurant in the heart of Paris and his fate remains unknown. French investigators believe he was tortured and killed.

The case is a cause celebre for Moroccan advocates of greater political freedom in the kingdom, but it remains politically sensitive in Rabat, where the late Hassan’s son Mohammed succeeded him as king in 1999.

A French Justice Ministry spokesman said on Friday four arrest warrants had been sent to Interpol, the international police organisation, and would now be issued worldwide.

Those targeted are: Hosni Benslimane, head of the powerful Adarak el Malaki, or Royal Gendarmerie, for more than four decades; Abdelkader Kadiri, a former head of intelligence; and Miloud Tounsi and Abdelhak Achaachi, two ex-agents.

“This is an important victory for me and I hope that Morocco will finally make some progress on this case,” said Maurice Buttin, 80, the ben Barka family lawyer in France since 1965.

“The more they delay, the more it shows the responsibility of Morocco and of King Hassan II,” he told Reuters.

A murder investigation into the case has been open in France since 1975 and detectives say they have evidence that the abduction was carried out by French criminals acting on orders from Moroccan intelligence officers.

During King Hassan’s 38-year reign, dissidents were routinely jailed, tortured or killed.

Human rights activists accuse the French authorities of turning a blind eye to such abuses and of deliberately dragging their feet in the ben Barka affair to avoid damaging ties with Morocco, a former French colony.

The reform-minded King Mohammed is credited with turning Morocco into a more tolerant state, but the monarchy and the security services remain untouchable.

French and Moroccan rights activists who have kept the case alive say that neither Paris nor Rabat are sincere in their efforts to go after the suspects in the kidnapping, as decades have gone by with no action.

The four arrest warrants date back to 2007, when they were issued by a French investigating magistrate. The warrants immediately caused diplomatic tensions, with newly elected President Nicolas Sarkozy on a visit to Morocco at the time.

The warrants were shelved until they were finally handed to Interpol last month. Asked why it had taken so long, the Justice Ministry spokesman said it was a “technical delay”.

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