Officer reveals grim details of Ben Barka's murder

 

Ahmed Boukhari remembers every detail of the acid tank they used to dissolve Ben Barka's body. It was Boukhari, then a young officer in the Moroccan intelligence service, who ordered the tank from the company that made boilers for Moroccan railways. A Col Martin of the CIA highly recommended the system to his trainees in the north African kingdom, saying it had worked well for the Iranian SAVAK.

Made of stainless steel, 1.5 metres high and 2.5 metres wide, slightly curved on the top and bottom, the tank was installed at the Dar-el-Mokri torture centre in Casa Blanca. It took two men wearing protective masks, suits and gloves to fill it.

The acid was so strong it destroyed everything, "even big bones like the femur", Boukhari recalled in a landmark interview with Le Monde and the Moroccan weekly, Le Journal, this summer.

Between 1961 and 1967, Boukhari added, dozens of opponents to King Hassan II disappeared inside the shiny receptacle. "Pity we can't soak you in acid," Mr Abraham Serfaty, who survived King Hassan's prisons (see The Irish Times, February 21st, 2001) remembers his own torturer saying.

Boukhari's testimony resolved two great mysteries surrounding the disappearance in October 1965, of the opposition leader Mehdi Ben Barka. Who killed the charismatic maths professor and Third World militant? And what happened to his body? Boukhari was the duty officer at the "cab 1" headquarters of the Moroccan intelligence service on the weekend when Ben Barka was "arrested" outside the Brasserie Lipp in Saint-Germain-des-PrΘs by two French policemen working for King Hassan.

"Mission accomplished. The package is ready for shipment. Send the aircraft," was the message dictated from France by Mohamed Achaachi, the head of the Moroccan "counter-subversion" department, to his superiors. Boukhari conveyed the words to Gen Mohamed Oufkir and his deputy, Commandant Ahmed Dlimi.

Gen Oufkir was the King's right-hand man, minister of the interior, head of national security and the intelligence services. Both Gene Oufkir and Commandant Dlimi flew to Paris, where they joined in the interrogation of Ben Barka, who was handcuffed and hung from the ceiling in a suburban villa. Moroccan agents who witnessed the scene later told Boukhari how Oufkir cut little pieces of flesh from Ben Barka's chest with a dagger.

King Hassan had kept 30 agents working full time for seven months, tracking Ben Barka from Cairo to Algiers to Geneva, listening to his phone calls, opening his mail. Oufkir intended to drug the opposition leader and spirit him back to Morocco on a military aircraft - not kill him.

Back in Rabat, the CIA colonel realised the operation had gone wrong and nervously hung around Boukhari's office. At Orly airport, the liaison officer between Air France and the French and Moroccan intelligence services, Antoine Lopez, arranged for a Moroccan diplomatic car to transfer Ben Barka's body to a Moroccan military aircraft. A French diplomat booked Gen Oufkir and Commandant Dlimi back to Morocco on a commercial flight.

Boukhari saw a police commissioner rush off carrying an array of cameras. The body, still dressed in the suit Ben Barka wore when he was kidnapped, was photographed on a stretcher in the courtyard of the torture centre. For the pictures they kept in their files, Moroccan agents put Ben Barka's hat and sunglasses back on his head. The only copy of the film taken as the body was lowered into the acid tank was given to King Hassan for his private viewing.

Gen Oufkir was killed in an attempted coup against King Hassan seven years later, and his wife and children were then imprisoned for 18 years. Three French thugs who participated in Ben Barka's kidnapping fled to Morocco, where they were later murdered on Commandant Dlimi's orders. King Hassan died in July 1999, and was succeeded by his son, Mohamed VI.

For 36 years, the Ben Barka affair has symbolised the complicity of Western intelligence services in propping up dictators. Morocco changed, and one of Ben Barka's comrades, Mr Abderrahmane Youssoufi, is now the country's prime minister. But socialist party activists still say that "Ben Barka's corpse lies between the left and the monarchy". King Mohamed VI has allowed Ben Barka's family to visit Morocco (see The Irish Times October 27th, 1999) and a French investigating magistrate travelled there in June. Then Ahmed Boukhari's sordid account of the murder was published. Prime Minister Youssoufi said this week that there could be no statute of limitations for Ben Barka's murder, "For it was a political crime in which several states were implicated". At least three of the intelligence agents whom Boukhari says witnessed Ben Barka's death are now comfortably retired. There are calls for them to be questioned, but Mohamed VI has shown little inclination to delve into the dark side of his father's reign.