RABAT, (Reuters) – A Moroccan court sentenced 29 people to prison terms of one to eight years on Tuesday for recruiting volunteers to fight U.S.-led troops in Iraq, court officials said.
Police rounded what they called the “Tetouan Cell” in January last year and charged them with financial and ideological links to Al Qaeda and the Moroccan Islamic Fighting Group (GICM).
Among those arrested was Ahmed Safri, a 55-year-old Moroccan who lived in Sweden for 30 years before returning to his native country. Safri was sentenced to three years in prison.
The group were found guilty of forming a criminal gang with the aim of committing terrorist acts, unauthorised public meetings and recruiting Moroccans to fight in Iraq.
Defence lawyer Mohamed Hilal said the sentences dealt out by the criminal court of first instance near Rabat were overly harsh. “The sentences were based on the beliefs of the group members, and you cannot punish someone simply for their beliefs,” he said. “Thank God we can appeal — we will go back to court and hopefully the sentences will be corrected.”
Staunch U.S. ally Morocco and neighbouring Maghreb countries have been on alert for attacks since Al Qaeda’s north African wing stepped up suicide bombings and other attacks last year.
Some 1,000 Islamists are in Moroccan jails on terrorism-related charges. Hundreds have staged protests in recent months, complaining of mistreatment, harsh conditions and unjustified imprisonment.