Moroccan tourist officials may well boast of their luxury hotels designed to lure European and North American tourists but the regime of King Mohammed VI has much less to say about the hell-on-earth that is his prison system and of the torture of those inside.
As the letters from United Nations officials urging his government to stop arresting and torturing innocent men fail to induce any change, maybe this appeal to travelers to seek other destinations will have some impact. Apart from your own personal safety if you run afoul (shudder!) of the Moroccan authorities, here are some reasons for avoiding this popular tourist destination.
To begin with, Morocco has shown its disrespect for international law by forging a pact with the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency to receive kidnapped terror suspects upon whom Morocco's secret police inflict grotesque tortures. If Rabat will accept a prisoner kidnapped from another country without a prior legal hearing, how safe are you going to be?
James Wilson, 67, a Des Plaines, Ill., commercial airlines pilot, found out when the plane in which he was a passenger made an emergency landing in Morocco in May, 2008, and he spent 13 months in prison, from which, his family said, he emerged "in bad shape." According to the Arlington Heights, Ill., Herald, a family member complained they "felt neglected by the American government, wondering why it would allow one of its citizens to fester in a foreign prison for a crime (drug trafficking) he did not commit." (Could it be because the U.S. government itself is helping fill Morocco's prisons with innocent men?)
And torture inflicted by King Mohammed's thugs is widespread. BBC television termed prison abuses in Morocco "rampant," charging the country's "44 prisons are overcrowded with unhealthy conditions belonging to another age." It quoted Moroccan human right groups that the prison regime is "immersed in corruption, violence, disease and the sexual abuse of children as young as 12." Overcrowding is bad, BBC said, because 80,000 detainees are jammed into a space for half that number and "the only place left to sleep for some prisoners are the toilets." Seriously, do you want to patronize luxury hotels in Rabat, the capital, while the prison authorities are raping girls a few miles away? Yuk!
One visitor who didn't come to Morocco willingly was Abou Elkassim Britel, an Italian citizen, who, like so many others, was illegally arrested in Pakistan and sent to Morocco. The ACLU last June 25th called on the UN to investigate, because he is serving a nine-year sentence based on a confession ACLU said was extracted by torture. Britel was worked over at Temara prison.
"The U.S. has failed to take responsibility for its most egregious actions, leaving Mr. Britel and countless other victims of the "extraordinary rendition' program with no choice but to turn to the international community for justice," said Steven Watt, a staff attorney with the ACLU Human Rights Program.
After being picked up in Pakistan on alleged immigration violations in Feb., 2002, Britel was handed over to U.S. officials who, the ACLU says, "stripped and beat" him, shackled and blindfolded him, and flew him to Morocco for detention and questioning at Temara, "where he was interrogated, beaten, deprived of sleep and food and threatened with sexual torture." Britel is currently serving a nine-year sentence even though an Italian investigating judge found "a complete lack of evidence linking the man to any criminal or terrorist activity."
Tragically, Britel's story is one of many. The CIA has illegally rendered 28 known victims to Morocco and, possibly, scores more, whom they turn over to the dread Moroccan Securite du Territoire(DST). Both Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have piles of dossiers on prisoners' treatment at the hands of King Mohammed's thugs.
According to a report in the London Sunday Times of Feb. 12, 2006, "Temara (prison) itself already has a fearsome reputation among former inmates. Binyam Mohammed, an Ethiopian-born Briton later sent to Guantanamo Bay"(said) interrogators there cut his chest and penis when he refused to answer questions." He was freed in Feb., 2009, without ever being charged of any crime (which is typical) and allowed to return to England.
Tourism in Morocco is an $8 billion-a-year industry, the second largest revenue earner after phosphate exports as the country pushes tourism with its "Plan Azur," designed to beef up coastal resorts along the Atlantic and Mediterranean coasts. Tourists have enjoyed the beaches and visiting Casablanca, Marrakech, Tangier, and Fez, is said to be fascinating. However, if you choose another destination you will send King Mohamed a personal message of your own. But it's up to you. In 2008, Morocco had nearly a million French visitors, nearly 600,000 from Spain and close to 150,000 from Britain. Canadian and American travelers also visit in large numbers and Morocco is hoping for 10 million visits this year.
While the wife of one prisoner in Morocco contacted me requesting that I write about his particular case, it seems to me that as King Mohammed paid no attention to urgent letters from high UN officials he will pay zero attention to any scribble of mine. Besides, how much good will freeing one inmate do? And what about the girls being raped? What about the thousands of prisoners served rotten chow and denied medical attention who are penned together like sheep awaiting slaughter? Just freeing one man won't hack it. No, civilized people everywhere need to strike Morocco off their list of tourist destinations until all the illegally rendered CIA prisoners are freed by the Moroccan police state and prison conditions brought into the 21st Century. Maybe the king could find the prison upgrade money needed by reducing his palace operating budget of $960,000 a day, much of it Wikipedia says that goes for "car repairs" and "clothing." Or, he might dip into his personal fortune, put at $2 billion by Forbes, gotten from his privileged Ona Group, which has its paws into retailing and food processing. Or, he could scrape up a little cash by removing his "Big Brother" face from the ubiquitous billboards that feature him and which subtly remind people they may not speak ill of him because he is IT. Until then, for all I care, it might be a good idea for King Mohammed to house Morocco's inmates in the empty rooms of his luxury hotels. Maybe he could try an experiment to see what a little love and human kindness might achieve, the kind written about in the Qur'an, which he is said to know by heart. Meanwhile, spread the word around----BOYCOTT MOROCCO! #
(Sherwood Ross is an award-winning free-lance writer based in Miami, Florida. He formerly reported for the Chicago Daily News, and contributed weekly columns to United Press International and Reuters. Reach him at email@example.com)