A French investigating judge in Paris waited in vain last week for former Moroccan security service agent Ahmed Boukhari, who was to have testified on his revelations concerning Moroccan opposition leader Mehdi Ben Barka. In a recently published interview in the French newspaper Le Monde and in the Moroccan newspaper Le Journal, Boukhari talked about Ben Barka's murder and the disappearance of his body 36 years ago. The body, he said, was flown from Paris - where he had been abducted and murdered by agents of King Hassan II of Morocco - to Rabat. There, in the cellars of the interrogation and torture headquarters at Dar-El-Mokri, it was dissolved in an acid bath. Heading the operation in Paris and Rabat were the interior minister, General Mohammed Oufkir, and the head of the security service and his deputy, Major Ahmed Dalimi. Endless articles and books have been written over the years about "the Ben Barka affair," but there is no certainty that everything related in them is correct and that, at least in some of them, an effort has not been made to obfuscate information that might lead to those who were partners to the despicable crime. Boukhari held an official position at Dar-El-Mokri at the time, and he was the one who wrote the report on the transfer of the body and its final disposal. His statements shed light on the mystery of the disappearance of Ben Barka's corpse. Boukhari's revelations expose, for example, the fact that CIA agents in Morocco - "Colonel Martin," "Scott" and "Steve" - who were aiding the Moroccan security service, knew first-hand details about the way the Moroccan leader was eliminated. "Colonel Martin," related Boukhari, was authorized to take a daily interest in the activities at Dar-El-Mokri and also used to help him keep the archive up to date, sort and catalogue documents and organize the office files. According to Boukhari, beginning in 1961, an apparatus for dissolving bodies was in operation; it had been constructed according to the instructions of "Colonel Martin." The colonel, added Boukhari, spoke both French and Arabic and knew how the apparatus worked from his days in Iran, where he had been stationed during the 1950s. The apparatus was ordered from a factory that produced boilers in Casablanca, and the order was signed by a hotel-bar called Le Sphinx, located in the Muhammadiya quarter of northern Casablanca. Le Sphinx had a reputation as the best brothel in Morocco, and until 1964 it was run by a man called Zurita, who was defined in Le Monde and Le Journal as a franco-israelien. According to Boukhari, from 1961 to 1967, "Dozens of bodies of oppositionists were dissolved in the acid apparatus at Dar-El-Mokri." Boukhari was not a witness to the abduction of Ben Barka in Paris or to his murder. Insofar as is known, Ben Barka, who lived part of the time in Geneva as an exile, fell into a trap that had been laid for him. On October 29, 1965, he was invited to a meeting, supposedly concerning the production of a film, at the Brasserie Lipp in the St. Germain quarter in Paris. There he was abducted and taken to a villa in the southern part of the city, where he was murdered. The only copy of a film documenting the dissolving of bodies at Dar-El-Mokri was personally handed over by Dalimi to King Hassan. Many of those who took part in the abduction, murder and dissolving of the body - Moroccans and Frenchmen - were eliminated, among them General Oufkir and a number of denizens of the French underworld. "Boukhari's revelations are important, but partial, as many questions about the Ben Barka affair have remained unresolved," said Simone Bitton this week. Bitton's documentary film, "Ben Barka: The Moroccan Equation," was screened last month in Europe. State secrets
"Many agents of the French security services, whom Boukhari mentioned, are living in Morocco and have not told their version of events. The time has come for us to know, for example, to what extent foreign security services were involved - French, the American CIA, the Israeli Mossad and others." Indeed, the governments of France and the United States have acknowledged that they have in their possession thousands of reports and documents dealing with the Ben Barka affair, but they have been declared state secrets for many years to come. A partial admission by Meir Amit, who headed the Mossad during the 1960s, revealed a tiny bit about the Israeli involvement in the matter. The Mossad, acknowledged Amit at the time, had connections with the Moroccan security services and their head, General Oufkir. Mossad operatives helped them find Ben Barka and lure him to the meeting in Paris. The matter was first made public in December 1966 in the now defunct Israeli weekly Bul, for which its editors were arrested. "Thirty-six years later," says Bitton, "many people remember the Ben Barka affair, but only a few really know who he was and what he did. In my film I tried, with help of testimony by members of his family and his ideological colleagues, to describe the man, his struggle and his dream." Into the personal history of the Moroccan leader, an admired and charismatic political and social figure who was nicknamed "Dynamo," is interwoven, like a scarlet thread, the history of contemporary Morocco. Bitton, 46, defines herself as "Moroccan, Israeli, French," in that order. For many years she felt that she did not know the history of her native country, "which up until a short time ago, was shrouded in fog. Ben Barka's name," she says, "was always mentioned only in the shocking context of `the Ben Barka affair,' since his murderers wanted not only to eliminate the man himself, but also his history. I tried to rediscover his living character, which is tragic and illuminating. This is my contribution to the activity of a new generation of Moroccans who want to reconstruct the hidden history of their country." Mehdi Ben Barka, who was murdered when he was 45, was born in the madina, the old city of Rabat, to a poor family. He excelled in his studies at the French school and later at college. There he also learned the values of the French Revolution - freedom and equality - which were not applied by the French occupier in Morocco. As an adult he became interested in mathematics and politics. When his sister Zahour expressed jealousy of other girls who had completed their studies and accused him: "You encourage other people to study, but you let your sister just stay home" - Ben Barka went out and enrolled her in school and eventually told her to teach the other women in the family. At that time, 90 percent of the 11 million inhabitants of Morocco were illiterate. Years later, when asked to name one of the positive aspects of French rule, Ben Barka said that the French had helped the Moroccans understand how much they had contributed to the backwardness of their country. As an adult, he was brought by the Istiqlal (Freedom) Party into the taifa - "community" - the code name for the underground that operated alongside the open party framework and published a newspaper called Al-Alam (The Banner). His parents' house on Sidi Fatah Street in Rabat became the home of the illegal party. When the Moroccans embarked on an open struggle against the French colonial regime after World War II, Ben Barka was exiled and put under house arrest in the southern part of the country. He was not with his children as they grew up, and his family was allowed to visit him only once a year. The struggle for freedom became more intense. The resistance movements no longer limited themselves to demonstrations and political struggles, and employed violence and terror attacks. Sultan Mohammed V, who had ceased to sign orders dictated to him by the French, was exiled to Madagascar and a puppet sultan was appointed in his place. After its burning defeat at Dien Bien Phu in Indochina (May, 1954) and the uprising in Algeria (November, 1954), France released the political prisoners in Morocco and invited them for talks. Only after the French government had brought Mohammed V back to Morocco and the throne did they accept the invitation. Morocco achieved independence, but continued to be dependent on France. Eventually it became clear to the leaders of the national movement that their alliance with the monarchy had no programmatic basis; it was based on total fealty to the monarch. After Morocco declared its independence in 1956, Mohammed V held all the powers of government in the framework of an absolute monarchy. The alliance with the monarchy, says one of the opposition movement leaders, Mohammed Bensaid, in the film, turned out to have been an error into which the Istiqlal Party and Ben Barka, one of its important leaders, had been lured. `No angel'
Gradually, strife increased among the three centers of power in the country: the royal family and its governing mechanisms, the Istiqlal Party and the opposition movement. In this struggle for positions of power in the government, the members of the Istiqlal Party were also involved in reciprocal killings, many of which have not been solved to this day. In this struggle, says Bitton's film, "Ben Barka was no angel." Amid the growing struggle within Morocco, the conflicts in the Istiqlal Party also grew more fierce, pitting conservatives employed in the government system against those who were demanding reforms. Ben Barka was among the latter. In 1959, Ben Barka and his colleagues who had been thrown out of their party founded the Union Nationale Des Forces Populaires and put out a new newspaper, Al-Tahrir (Liberty). They fought against corruption and for a constitution, free elections, agrarian reform and women's liberation. A wave of arrests among opponents of the absolutist government and the closing down of Al-Tahrir led Ben Barka to leave Morocco for France. His former friendship with the heir to the throne, Hassan, was of no help to him. In the film, one of his comrades in the struggle explained the regime's hostility toward Ben Barka: "The government's philosophy," he says, "is that if there is a flower growing in the garden, it must be cut down before it gives its scent and people enjoy it." In exile, Ben Barka formed widespread international ties, especially with heads of movements that were fighting colonialism. Various intelligence agencies followed his every move. The death of Mohammed V in 1961 and the ascent of Hassan II to the throne exacerbated the internal struggle in Morocco. With the pretense of implementing reforms to engender international recognition and international aid, Hassan II approved a new constitution that preserved the authority of the king as the sole ruler "by divine right." Despite the opposition of Ben Barka and his colleagues to the proposed constitution, it was ratified by a majority of 85 percent of the voters. After his return from exile in 1963, Ben Barka succeeded in being elected to parliament as the representative of the poor neighborhood Yakub Almansour at the entrance to Rabat, but he was again forced to leave Morocco, said one of his friends in the film, and thus avoided the new wave of arrests and torture. During his years in exile, Ben Barka traveled to world capitals, particularly in the Third World, and met their leaders. He lived everywhere and in effect nowhere. He made friends with Henri Curiel, an internationalist communist of Jewish-Egyptian origin who ran an international network that helped national liberation undergrounds. Thirteen years after Ben Barka was murdered, Curiel was also slain. With the founding of the Tricontinental movement that joined together communist countries, including Vietnam and Cuba, the Third World countries, including India and Egypt, and national liberation movements, as in South Africa, Ben Barka was elected to head it and to organize the first convention in Havana. In January, 1966, the convention was held, but Ben Barka did not participate. During the course of 1964, admit some of the opponents of Hassan II, the possibility came up of assassinating the king, but the plan was not implemented. One of those involved in this plan testifies in the film that he received an unambiguous instruction not to reveal to Ben Barka anything about the assassination attempt, as he was not party to the secret. The king responded with mass arrests and show trials at which many were sentenced to death, among them Ben Barka, who was tried in absentia; others were sentenced to life imprisonment. In March, 1965, violent demonstrations broke out in Morocco and were forcibly suppressed. About a thousand dead were buried in mass graves. In June, Hassan II declared an emergency government and his agents embarked on a campaign to capture Ben Barka. In Bitton's film, when the brother-in-law of Hassan II, Ahmed Othman, was asked who had killed Ben Barka, he kept mum. Bitton's film presents an alternative to the official Moroccan narrative. The film reveals another Morocco, a land that is not known to many, from the days of French rule to independence and the absolute rule of Mohammed V and Hassan II. The major part of the film was shot in Morocco after the death of Hassan II in July, 1999. Gradually, all too gradually, people's tongues are loosening up there, hidden files are being opened and taboos are being broken. "But still," Bitton sums up, "when you drive along the roads of Morocco you still come upon those same walls behind which they hide the slums and distress of this country."