Moroccan authorities arrested 12 suspects and were hunting three others after a 17-year-old girl told police she was gang-raped, tortured, and held against her will for two months.
Anger erupted in Morocco after news reports last week that the teenager was abducted, brutalised, and forcibly tattooed. The case sparked a new public outcry over women’s rights and sexual abuse in the North African kingdom.
Ibrahim Hashane, a member of a group of volunteer lawyers who are pressing her case, said on Wednesday an examining judge ordered investigations into allegations of kidnapping, rape and abuse.
Hashane told The Associated Press among the 15 people suspected in the case, 12 are in custody and three are on the run. He added that the judge scheduled a first hearing next week.
Police confirmed there had been arrests but wouldn’t say how many or give details. A court official on Tuesday said the suspects were aged between 18 and 27.
The main suspect, 20, was being held on suspicion of rape, torture, kidnapping, making death threats, and forming a gang, the official said.
‘Still in shock’
In an online video interview with Morocco’s Chouf TV last week, the girl alleged her kidnappers “would assault me one by one”, burned her, and didn’t feed her or let her shower. She appeared to have scars from cigarette burns on her hands.
The girl said she was held captive in the town of Olad Ayad, in the central Moroccan province of Beni Mellal.
“They held me for about two months and raped and tortured me. I will never forgive them. They have destroyed me,” she said.
The girl “is still in shock even if she tries to be strong”, said Loubna El Joud of women’s rights group NSAT, which is providing her with medical and psychological support. “Her hands shake when she speaks.”
She alleged two men kidnapped her at knife-point when she was visiting her aunt during the May-June holy month of Ramadan, before selling her to other men in exchange for money or drugs. She said her captors gave her drugs that knocked her out for days at a time.
More than 29,000 people signed a petition demanding the government provide the girl with urgent medical and psychological care after the video of her testimony went viral.
Rape victims in Morocco are often subject to double trauma as the conservative society blames them for their ordeal.
Relatives of the suspects were quoted in the Moroccan press accusing the teenager of lying, saying she lived a “depraved” lifestyle.
Abdelwahed Saadi, a social worker and neighbour of the girl’s family, said her father reported her missing but authorities did not launch an investigation.
“They are simple people. The father is sick and couldn’t do much to help free his daughter. Where we live is a crime and drug hotspot… She is first and foremost a victim of a dysfunctional environment. So are the attackers.”
The teenager said she attempted to flee from her abusers several times but in vain. Eventually, she said her father managed to speak by phone to one of the alleged kidnappers and convinced him to free her by saying he wouldn’t file a police complaint. Once freed, however, the girl notified authorities herself.
Houcine Harshi, president of the Moroccan Association for the Defence of Human Rights, cautioned the girl’s account must be viewed with some scepticism.
But Saadi said no circumstances could excuse the girl’s rape. “This girl is a minor. She says she has been abused and raped. Her words must be taken seriously,” he said.
Violence against Moroccan women remains widespread and a largely taboo subject in the country.
In February, parliament passed a long-sought law on combating violence against women, recognising some forms of abuse for the first time, and criminalising some forms of domestic violence.
But critics say it didn’t go nearly far enough.