Morocco court issues death sentence in cafe attack

AP News
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Posted: Oct 28, 2011 4:38 PM
Morocco court issues death sentence in cafe attack

A Moroccan court on Friday convicted all defendants for their role in a cafe bombing that killed 17 people, mostly tourists, sentencing the chief suspect to death.

The court erupted into chaos with the reading of the verdicts following five hours of deliberation. Families of the defendants shouted that they were unjust while the relatives of the victims wept and hugged each other.

Prosecutors had accused Adel al-Othmani of dressing like a tourist and planting the bomb in the Argana cafe, before setting it off with his mobile phone. He was convicted of premeditated murder and building explosives, among other charges.

The April 28 blast killed eight French tourists in addition to British, Swiss, Moroccan and Portuguese victims.

The court handed down a life prison term for al-Othmani's associate, Hakim Dah, and gave four-year terms for four other defendants charged with having knowledge of the crime. Three were given two-year prison terms.

Police cleared the court of the families of the accused, who then demonstrated outside the courtroom. The sister of al-Othmani began banging her head against the windows of the courthouse in grief and had to be restrained by her relatives.

"We saw our brother the morning of April 28," screamed al-Othmani's brother hysterically as he ran out of the courtroom. "Morocco is a country that kills, it wants to kill my brother," he yelled at people walking by along the busy street.

Before the verdict was issued, al-Othmani and the other defendants were given a last chance to address the court. All protested their innocence.

"They've arrested an innocent man to sort out their own political problems," said al-Othmani, wearing a New York Yankees sweatshirt and Adidas sweatpants, to the judge. The arrests came as Morocco was swept by a wave of pro-democracy protests demanding political reform.

Abdel Hamid Bettar, the spokesman for the defendants' families, said they would appeal the sentence.

"It is an injustice, my brother did nothing, neither did the others," he said as other relatives shouted around him outside the courthouse.

Relatives of the victims were present for all the court sessions and some burst into tears, in apparent relief, over the verdict. Others, however, expressed anger over the lesser sentences.

"In four years it will be them taking up the jihad and killing Europeans," shouted Jacques Sombret. "This is not justice, this is clemency."

He was echoed by Eric Bedier, who said while he was satisfied with the penalties for the two main defendants, the other's got off too lightly.

"If you know about a crime, it's as bad as committing it," he said.

The families of the victims, however, have said they were against the death penalty. Morocco has not executed anyone since 1993, but there are 107 people on death row.

The two sets of families were separated in the court by a line of police and would often exchange harsh words during the recesses of the trial.

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.

Moroccan authorities moved swiftly in the aftermath of the blast, eventually rounding up what they said was a nine-person cell inspired by al-Qaida, but not necessarily with direct links to the group.

Defense attorneys countered that the case against their clients was based on confessions coerced through torture and lacked hard evidence.

"In the absence of evidence, the sentence is very severe," said Mohammed Sadko, one of the defense attorneys. "We hope the court of appeals overturns it."

Morocco has been spared attacks by organized militant groups like al-Qaida, which has a strong presence in neighboring Algeria, but is plagued by so-called "lone-wolf" attacks of small cells inspired by extremist ideology.