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14.06.2019 Morocco

Defendants at Morocco trial deny involvement in hiker killings

By AFP
The trial of two dozen men charged with the brutal murder of two Scandinavian hikers has been held under tight security in Morocco since May 2.  By FADEL SENNA (AFP/File)
JUN 14, 2019 MOROCCO
The trial of two dozen men charged with the brutal murder of two Scandinavian hikers has been held under tight security in Morocco since May 2. By FADEL SENNA (AFP/File)

The trial of 24 men charged over the brutal murder of two Scandinavian hikers resumed Thursday in Morocco, with several defendants denying their involvement in the killings.

The three main suspects, members of a jihadist cell accused of killing the women, admitted to the murders during a hearing in May, saying they were carried out in the name of the Islamic State group.

Danish student Louisa Vesterager Jespersen, 24, and 28-year-old Norwegian Maren Ueland had their throats slit while camping in an isolated area of the High Atlas mountains in December.

Twenty-four defendants on trial in Sale, near the capital Rabat, are facing charges including promoting terrorism, forming a terrorist cell and premeditated murder.

A former street vendor, 25-year-old Abdessamad Ejjoud, told the court at a previous hearing he beheaded one of the women.

His co-defendant Younes Ouaziyad, 27, has confessed to killing the other hiker, while a third man on trial, Rachid Afatti, said he videotaped the killings.

Several other defendants appeared in court on Thursday and denied any involvement in the murders.

"We used to pray together but we never plotted anything," Abdelkebir Akhmayej told the court.

"We discussed religion," added Noureddine Belabed, a former convict who had been sentenced to three years in prison for advocating "terrorism".

Another man, Abderrahim Khayali, confessed that he had accompanied the three main suspects to the High Atlas mountains but added that he left before the women were murdered.

In theory, the killers could face the death penalty, but Morocco has had a de facto freeze on executions since 1993.

Ejjoud -- who had previously been jailed for trying to join IS in Syria -- confessed to organising the mission to the High Atlas mountains during which the tourists were killed.

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 murders.

The next hearing is scheduled for June 20.

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