RABAT (Reuters) - The leaders of a Moroccan Islamist group, who were jailed over what campaigners say were trumped-up charges and then released last week, said on Thursday they owed their freedom to the “Arab Spring” and called for other captives to be freed.
Under pressure to reform after the upheavals last year around the Middle East, Morocco for the first time elected an Islamist-led government which has set about reversing what it said were repressive policies under the previous authorities.
In the strongest signal yet of the new approach, Morocco’s King Mohammed issued pardons last week to the leaders of a group called Salafia Jihadia which officials had accused of being linked to violent Islamist militant attacks.
“We are free thanks to the Arab Spring,” said one of the group’s leaders, Hassan Kettani, who had been serving a 20-year jail sentence until his release last weekend.
“In this context, our country carried out reforms to avoid the kind of tragedies that happened in other Arab countries ... Part of the peaceful resolution that our country has chosen is to resolve the issue of prisoners of conscience,” he said.
But the freed men said there were still dozens of innocent Islamists in jail. Rights groups say over the past decade, many Islamists have been convicted on fabricated charges or on the strength of false confessions extracted under torture.
“One of the priorities for us is the release of all the people imprisoned for their beliefs and to have them return to their families,” said Mohamed Rafiki, another of the freed leaders of the group.
The group’s leaders were convicted of encouraging militant violence and, in particular, of inspiring a coordinated wave of suicide bombings in Morocco’s commercial capital, Casablanca, in 2003 which killed 45 people. They all deny the charges.
Unlike other countries affected by the “Arab Spring,” Morocco did not overthrow its rulers. The king, head of the Arab world’s longest-serving dynasty, still holds supreme executive authority.
However, under pressure from protests galvanized by the revolts elsewhere, the monarch ceded some of his powers to elected officials and called an early parliamentary election which was won by a moderate Islamist party.
Editing by Andrew Heavens