One country that has escaped the current scrutiny of US backing for Arab dictatorships is Morocco, in part because its human rights situation has improved over the past decade. But for most of the late King Hassan II’s thirty-eight-year rule, the United States and France provided financial and diplomatic support to this moderate on Arab-Israeli issues, while his henchmen tortured and secretly jailed thousands of domestic critics. Hundreds were disappeared. Now, the revelations of a retired secret policeman living in Casablanca have raised new questions about Washington’s role in the repression.
Since the death of Hassan in 1999 and the ascent of his son, Mohammed VI, to the throne, Morocco has enjoyed a somewhat freer atmosphere. Human rights activists, victims’ groups and the media are exposing the grim past and debating what mix of truth-telling, reparations and punishment will both deliver justice to the victims and help consolidate the democratization process. Mohammed apparently does not want trials of torturers or the sort of truth-telling that could delegitimize the monarchy and roil the security forces. But he has distanced himself from his father’s worst excesses by acknowledging the state’s role in past abuses and compensating some victims. His gestures, unprecedented in the Arab world, have helped to brighten the government’s image at a time when it has made little headway in combating poverty and unemployment.
The state’s script for turning the page on the past has nevertheless been disrupted by Ahmed Boukhari, the first police agent to talk about the dirty war against dissidents during the 1960s and ’70s.
Among Boukhari’s revelations was the presence of three men he describes as CIA operatives who worked daily in the Rabat headquarters of the secret police from 1960 until 1967. Boukhari says these men helped to build the young agency. “They went through the résumés and picked the men to hire,” he told me in a recent interview. “Then they taught them how to conduct surveillance of dissidents.”
Boukhari’s most sensational disclosure, if confirmed, would solve a nagging political mystery: the fate of the socialist opposition leader Mehdi Ben Barka after he was picked up by French police in Paris in 1965 and never seen again. Exiled at the time, Ben Barka was a charismatic and rising star in the progressive Third World alliance known as the Tricontinental Conference. He is still revered by the Moroccan left.
While no one ever doubted Ben Barka’s abduction to have been engineered by senior Moroccan officials with the collusion of French and Israeli agents, details of what followed remained murky. According to Boukhari, who maintained the daily logs for the police’s formidable countersubversion unit, Ben Barka died the night he was kidnapped while being tortured under interrogation in a villa near Paris. His corpse was then flown secretly to Morocco, where police dissolved it in a vat of acid–a technique of disposal that Boukhari says was introduced by a CIA agent he knew as “Colonel Martin.”
Martin allegedly had unfettered access to the countersubversion unit’s logs and attended the agency’s meetings at which the Ben Barka operation was planned. Reporting to work on the morning after the kidnapping, he would have learned that Ben Barka’s body was to be spirited off to Rabat.
Although the Ben Barka affair triggered a diplomatic crisis between Morocco and France, the United States remained circumspect. Washington viewed King Hassan as a key ally in a region where Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser’s pan-Arab socialism enjoyed broad appeal and newly independent Algeria seemed to be drawing closer to the Soviet camp.
Two retired US diplomats stationed in Rabat at the time, political section chief William Crawford and economic officer Frederick Vreeland, denied in a recent interview any knowledge of the three agents Boukhari describes, or of any CIA role in helping the King police his opponents. Both Crawford and Vreeland mentioned Morocco’s well-known collaboration with Israel’s intelligence agency, the Mossad, including in the surveillance of dissidents. Vreeland said the men Boukhari describes might have been Mossad agents posing as CIA agents, since Israelis working for Moroccan intelligence couldn’t disclose their nationality.
In the wake of Boukhari’s testimony, Moroccan, French and US human rights organizations have urged Washington to declassify the more than 1,800 documents it has admitted having on the Ben Barka affair. The government has responded neither to this plea nor to my requests for comment on Boukhari’s allegations about the CIA.
Boukhari’s plight since he blew the whistle reveals the fear of Moroccan authorities that the current reckoning with the past will escape their control. In August he was arrested and sentenced to three months in prison for writing bad checks. A month after his release he was given another three-month sentence and a fine for libeling three of the Moroccan agents he implicated in Ben Barka’s abduction. What authorities have not done is approach Boukhari as a valuable new witness in unsolved cases of political murder and disappearance, or issue him the passport he needs to comply with subpoenas to testify before a judge in France who is investigating Ben Barka’s disappearance.
Although fitting the past into the future is primarily a task for Moroccans, Washington can play a crucial role. Ahmed Hirzeni, a Rabat sociologist who served twelve years in prison on political charges, observed, “We don’t want to dwell forever on the dossier of the past. The Americans can help us turn the page by clarifying their role in the Ben Barka affair.” Whatever it yields, US disclosure will pressure the Moroccan state to acknowledge more fully the torture, political arrests and disappearances it carried out in the past. And that, say activists like Hirzeni, will help to prevent their recurrence.