The chief suspect in the trial over the bombing of a Moroccan cafe popular with tourists recanted his confession Thursday and denied any involvement in the attack that killed 17 people.
The chief judge questioned Adel Othmani over the details of the charges against him, including premeditated murder, but the defendant denied any knowledge or role in the attack in Marrakech.
"I have never set foot in Marrakech," he said, while his defense lawyer as well as those for the families of the victims clustered in front of the judges' bench.
The blast on April 28 tore through the Argana cafe in Marrakech's old town, killing mostly foreigners, including eight French tourists, as well as British, Swiss, Moroccan and Portuguese victims.
The attack shook relatively peaceful Morocco, a staunch U.S. ally that drew nearly 10 million tourists last year to its sandy beaches, desert and mountain landscapes, and historic sites.
Othmani, whose charges include explosives-making, is one of eight defendants being tried for the attack. The others are being tried for lesser charges, such as membership in a banned group.
Described as the main perpetrator of the attack, Othmani had earlier both confessed and participated in a reenactment of the attack. He told the judge he did both under threat of torture.
"This is the first time I've heard about maltreatment (of the defendants)," scoffed Abu Zohour, a Marrakech-based lawyer representing relatives of some of the Swiss victims. "They didn't talk about it in front of the investigating judge earlier."
From the glass enclosure in the courtroom where the defendants were held, Othmani declared his innocence at the start of the trial and said the bombing was the work of the Moroccan intelligence service to stop a wave of pro-democracy protests.
"They created a terrorist event and then caught those responsible in a short amount of time to show they are the perfect ally to the West in the fight against terrorism," he shouted in English. Othmani was arrested three days after the bombing in the coastal city of Safi.
The chief judge told him that if there were any further outbursts he would be tried in absentia.
Two earlier sessions over the summer consisted of only procedural matters and Thursday's was the first that included many members from the families of the victims in the courtroom.
"I saw the assassin of my son with my own eyes _ I wanted to spit on him," said Nadine Asnar, whose son Eric died in the bombing.
"I hope Moroccan justice does what is necessary to condemn him," she added during a trial recess.
Eric Bedier, the brother-in-law of Asnar, said they planned to stay throughout the whole trial and were getting some assistance from the French Embassy.
"We have to be there, we have to show those people that we are all in solidarity and we will not let this go," he said, referring to the perpetrators
Relatives of the accused also filled the courtroom and afterwards they held a demonstration on the courthouse steps maintaining their relatives had been framed.
There were tense moments between the two groups outside the courtroom. A French woman came up to the spokesman for the defendants' families showed him a picture of a young man and said "he killed him," while another said to him "think of our children."
Hassan Bettar, who represents the accused families, bellowed in the hallway of the court building: "We are in Morocco, there is judicial corruption. I believe the attacks were fabricated."
Another French man told him to save it for the trial and walked away.
A number of the families of the victims had also hired French lawyers to represent them and these attempted to ask Othmani questions during the trial, such as how it came that a mobile phone SIM card owned by him was used in the cafe bombing.
Othmani said he refused to answer questions from foreign lawyers.
Another French lawyer showed him a large glossy picture of a blonde child and asked him if this brought back memories of his victims.
The trial will resume Sept. 29.
(This version corrects day of week.)