SALE, Morocco, (Reuters) – A Moroccan court on Friday postponed the trial of 50 Islamists accused of plotting to overthrow the monarchy and replace it with a purist Islamic state, court officials and lawyers said.
Fifty members of Ansar el Mehdi (Mehdi Partisans) appeared at a brief hearing at the court in Sale before judges put off the trial to March 23 to give the court time to appoint government-funded counsel for defendants who are too poor to pay for lawyers, officials said.
The defendants are charged with belonging to a “criminal gang preparing to stage terrorist acts” and undermining the public order and collecting money to fund terror attacks.
Security services said at the time of their arrest in August they were planning a bigger attack than the Casablanca bombings in 2003 that killed 45 people. Officials also said the Mehdi group had recruited members of the police and the military.
Rabat’s secular-minded government has said the capture of the group plotting jihad or holy war proved the existence of an increasingly sophisticated menace to the stability of the kingdom of 30 million.
The case is seen by foreign diplomats and human rights activists as a test for the government’s pledges to balance its fight against radical Islamists with respect for human rights.
Security officials say police have broken up more than 50 radical Islamist cells, some linked to al Qaeda, and arrested more than 3,000 people since then.
Local human rights groups accuse the authorities of abusing the rights of arrested people. Many of them, they argued, had been detained on unfounded suspicion of links to terrorism.
The defendants in the Mehdi case were remanded in jail until the trial resumes, lawyers said. If convicted, they face up to 30 years in prison.