Open Letter to The Honorable Colin J. Powell

Press release

Secretary of State
U.S. Department of State
Washington, DC 20520

Dear Secretary Powell,

We are writing to urge you to support the declassification of all U.S. government documents relating to the abduction and enforced disappearance of Moroccan opposition leader Mehdi Ben Barka in Paris thirty-six years ago, on October 29, 1965.

In 1976, U.S. authorities refused on national security grounds to make such documents available in response to a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request filed by Mr. Ben Barka’s son Bachir. However, new information about the possible role of the Central Intelligence Agency in the case underscores the need for such a disclosure.

Interested parties will in coming days submit a new FOIA request to the U.S. government for materials relating to Mr. Ben Barka’s disappearance. We believe that lifting the secrecy surrounding the CIA’s past role in Morocco would demonstrate a commitment to promoting human rights in the region and to re-examining U.S. acquiescence and possible complicity in grave violations committed by an ally.

The new information about the CIA’s role comes from Ahmed Boukhari, the first Moroccan secret police agent ever to publicly detail the "dirty war" waged against dissidents in the 1960s and 1970s. According to Mr. Boukhari’s revelations, first published in Le Monde and the Moroccan Journal Hebdomadaire on June 29 and 30, CIA agents who were stationed at the headquarters of the Secret Police in Rabat had broad access to police records and were kept informed of police operations on a daily basis. One CIA agent helped to design a large steel vat to hold acid, in which the police dissolved the bodies of abducted dissidents, Mr. Boukhari said.

Mr. Boukhari, now retired, also provided answers to the mystery of what happened to Mehdi Ben Barka. A leader of the Moroccan socialist party and the Third-World-based non-aligned movement, Mr. Ben Barka was living in exile in 1965. At mid-day on October 29, witnesses watched as he was stopped by two French policemen on the Boulevard St. Germain in Paris, escorted to a police vehicle, and driven away. He was never seen again. The abduction has long been presumed to be the work of Moroccan secret police, although important details remain unknown.

According to Mr. Boukhari, Mr. Ben Barka died while being interrogated in a villa south of Paris by Moroccan agents, in the presence of then-Minister of Interior Mohamed Oufkir and his deputy, Ahmed Dlimi, the director of national security. The agents then flew his body back to Morocco, where on October 31 they dissolved it in the above-mentioned vat of acid, housed in the Dar el-Mokri police station in Rabat.

None of the Moroccan agents allegedly involved were ever punished for their role in the abduction, either in France or Morocco. However, a French court convicted Mr. Oufkir in absentia and acquitted Mr. Dlimi.

According to Mr. Boukhari, three CIA agents, who went by the names "Colonel Steve," "Colonel Martin," and "Colonel Scott," had been working closely with the Secret Police since 1960. "Colonel Martin," assigned to the powerful Counter-Subversion bureau, followed the plan to abduct Mr. Ben Barka since its adoption in March 1965, Boukhari stated. "Colonel Martin" would have learned of Mr. Ben Barka’s death in France very shortly after it occurred, and also of the plan to secretly transport his body back to Morocco.

With respect to the vat of acid, Mr. Boukhari stated that he himself commissioned construction of the five-foot-tall stainless steel vessel in 1961, pursuant to instructions and a sketch that "Colonel Martin" gave him. "Colonel Martin" allegedly told Mr. Boukhari he had seen such a vat in use in Iran, where he had been posted in the 1950s.

In the four months since Mr. Boukhari started speaking publicly, nothing has come to light to undermine the credibility of his testimony. Regrettably, Moroccan authorities reacted to the disclosures not by launching a judicial investigation into the grave crimes that Mr. Boukhari attributed to state agents, but rather by prosecuting him on charges of writing bad checks. Whatever the merits of those charges, the handling of the prosecution and trial leaves little doubt that authorities are using the case to punish Mr. Boukhari for speaking out, and to intimidate other potential whistle-blowers. He is currently serving a three-month sentence and is due to be released November 13.

Mr. Boukhari’s revelations have fueled demands within Morocco’s civil society that their government, as well as foreign intelligence agencies, disclose the information that might elucidate the "disappearance" of Mr. Ben Barka, as well hundreds of other "disappearances" of political activists in Morocco whose fate remains unknown to this day.

Citing Mr. Boukhari’s testimony, the Moroccan Human Rights Association and the Moroccan Human Rights Organization, both based in Rabat, wrote a joint letter to President Bush on July 16, asking the president to order the declassification of files pertaining to the CIA’s alleged relation to human rights abuses in Morocco. Such an act, they said, would "enable the victims and their survivors to learn the truth, enable the judicial system to apply the law, and enable all parties concerned to put in place norms and legal, political, and social mechanisms to safeguard against the recurrence of these criminal acts." In the spirit of their letter, which has as yet received no response, we are also addressing a letter today to Prime Minister Lionel Jospin, asking him to order the declassification of all French files pertaining to the Ben Barka affair.

In 1976, the CIA informed Mr. Ben Barka’s son Bachir that it possessed 1,846 documents pertaining to his father, before refusing on national security grounds to declassify them. Today, we do not see how releasing these documents about events that occurred nearly four decades ago will harm national security.

We note that former President Clinton ordered the declassification of documents related to human rights abuses Guatemala, in response to a request by that country’s Historical Clarification Commission. The Clinton administration made clear that this action was
intended both as an acknowledgement of regrettable past policies as well as a contribution toward promoting democracy and the rule of law.

We believe that the same logic should be applied to U.S. archives concerning Morocco, where the search for truth and accountability concerning past repression is a priority of civil society as it tries to build a more democratic future.

We thank you for your consideration and look forward to your reply.

Sincerely yours,

Hanny Megally
Executive Director
Middle East and North Africa Division
Human Rights Watch

Sidiki Kaba
International Federation for Human Rights

Read more