RABAT, Morocco — Three conservative clerics whose arrests nine years ago heralded the beginning of Morocco's crackdown on Islamists called on Thursday for a new investigation into their country's worst terrorist attack.
After the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in the U.S., Moroccan authorities began targeting hardline Islamist clerics, especially those believed to be sympathetic to al-Qaida — a crackdown that broadened after the May 2003 bombings in Casablanca that killed 45.
The three clerics were convicted and sentenced to up to 30 years in prison at the start of 2003 — before the Casablanca attacks. Their pardoning by the king and release from prison over the weekend on the Prophet Muhammad's birthday suggests the government may finally be relaxing a fierce campaign against Islamists characterized by mass arrests.
In a news conference, the clerics said a new probe is needed to find out who was behind the bombings. The results of official investigations were never publicized though several people were convicted for carrying it out.
"We want the opening of a serious investigation into the 16 May attacks to shed light on those events — Morroccans have the right to know who is really behind these attacks," Hassan al-Kettani said. "I have met the people who carried out the attacks in prison and they themselves don't know who was behind it."
There has been no official explanation for who masterminded the attacks, with authorities at the time speculating at first that it was linked to al-Qaida and then later saying it was a local group.
The three clerics, known for their ultraconservative, or Salafi, approach to Islam, were fiercely critical of the U.S. invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, something they say contributed to their arrests. They faced charges such as associating with criminal gangs and assembling without permission.
"We were put in prison and our only crime was to denounce foreign intervention into Muslim countries," said Abou Hafs.
Omar Heddouchi said he was tortured in prison and said conditions were even worse than in the U.S. detention center in Guantanamo since there at least prisoners were allowed to have Qurans.
"They stripped me naked and I was beaten all over my body, I can no longer see in my left eye," he told a crowd of journalists and conservative supporters. "I signed my confession blindfolded and under torture."
Heddouchi, however, said he was not planning on filing court cases against those who had tortured him for fear it would delay the release of the at least 700 Islamists still in detention.
"I will forgive everything I've been through if it results in the freedom of the other prisoners of conscience and provided that the authorities stop these kinds of abuses," he said.
The three clerics attributed their release to the new environment in the region brought on by the Arab Spring uprisings across the Middle East and North Africa.
Moroccan King Mohammed VI responded to protests by amending the constitution to give political parties greater powers and bringing forward elections — which resulted in the victory of an Islamist opposition party.
The new justice minister, Mustapha Ramid, was the lawyer for the three clerics when they were tried nine years ago.
The men said they said it was too early to talk about any future plans of joining politics or forming an association, with Abou Hafs saying that after nine years in prison, they just needed learn how to cross the street and use public transportation again.
Al-Kettani called for an end to nearly a decade of animosity toward the Islamists, something he believed was now finally possible with the victory of the Justice and Development Party in the elections.
"There has to be a national reconciliation to close the file of the detained Islamists," he said.