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02.05.2019 Morocco

Morocco court adjorns trial in murder of Scandinavian hikers

By Hamza Mekouar
Suspects, charged in connection with the murder of two Scandinavian hikers, arrive for their trial at a Moroccan court.  By - (AFP)
MAY 2, 2019 MOROCCO
Suspects, charged in connection with the murder of two Scandinavian hikers, arrive for their trial at a Moroccan court. By - (AFP)

A Moroccan court adjourned on Thursday for two weeks the trial of two dozen suspects charged in connection with the murder of two Scandinavian hikers minutes after it opened.

Danish student Louisa Vesterager Jespersen, 24, and 28-year-old Norwegian Maren Ueland had their throats slit before they were beheaded in December at an isolated site in the High Atlas mountains.

The killings shocked the North African country and three main defendants accused of direct involvement, who allegedly pledged allegiance to the Islamic State jihadist group, could face the death penalty.

A total of 24 defendants -- one of whom shot a smile at journalists -- appeared in the criminal court in Sale to face charges including promoting terrorism, forming a terrorist cell and premeditated murder.

The opening hearing was immediately postponed until May 16 after defence lawyers requested more time to examine the case.

A Spanish-Swiss convert to Islam is among the suspects on trial in the city near Rabat, accused of teaching the main suspects how to use encrypted communications and how to fire a gun.

Moroccans paid tribute to Danish student Louisa Vesterager Jespersen (L) and Norwegian Maren Ueland after they were murdered.  By FADEL SENNA (AFP/File) Moroccans paid tribute to Danish student Louisa Vesterager Jespersen (L) and Norwegian Maren Ueland after they were murdered. By FADEL SENNA (AFP/File)

Nature lovers, the two friends Jespersen and Ueland shared an apartment and went to Norway's Bo University where they were studying to be guides.

They had travelled together to Morocco for their Christmas holidays.

Their lives were cut short in the foothills of Toubkal, the highest summit in North Africa, some 80 kilometres (50 miles) from the city of Marrakesh, a tourist magnet.

'Enemies of Allah'

After the bodies were discovered, the Moroccan authorities were initially cautious, referring to a "criminal act" and wounds to the victims' necks.

But that all changed when a video showing one of the victims being beheaded -- filmed by one of the apparent killers on a mobile phone -- circulated on social networks.

One of those in the footage refers to "enemies of Allah" and revenge for brothers in Syria.

A separate video in the initial aftermath of the murder showed the alleged killers pledging allegiance to IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

Investigators said the "cell" was inspired by IS ideology, but Morocco's anti-terror chief insisted the accused had no contact with the jihadist group in conflict zones.

IS has never claimed responsibility for the double-murder.

Abdessamad Ejjoud, a 25-year-old street vendor referred to as the emir of the group by peers, is the suspected ringleader, according to investigators.

Police quickly arrested a first suspect in the suburbs of Marrakesh, and three others were arrested a few days later when they tried to leave the city by bus.

Mountains near the tourist village of Imlil in the High Atlas range, where the two Scandinavian hikers were murdered in December last year.  By FADEL SENNA (AFP/File) Mountains near the tourist village of Imlil in the High Atlas range, where the two Scandinavian hikers were murdered in December last year. By FADEL SENNA (AFP/File)

Aged from 25 to 33, they all lived Marrakesh.

They had recently embraced Salafism, an ultra-conservative branch of Sunni Islam, according to friends, neighbours and some family members.

A lawyer for one of the victim's families told AFP he would seek the death penalty for the murders.

A de facto moratorium on carrying out executions has been in place in Morocco since 1993.

A second Swiss citizen arrested after the double-murder was tried separately and jailed in mid-April for 10 years on charges including "forming a terrorist group".

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