The shame of Casablanca: How could a police chief get away with the rape of 1,500 women before being arrested - particularly when he had videotaped the evidence? The scandal of Mohammed Tabet is now adding to Morocco's growing political uncertainty

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I HEARD the screaming first. Round and round the stairs it came, a howl that spewed down the wall and out into the street. 'Go awaay. Please. Please, just go. I beg you. Go awaay.' The screams buckled the caretaker's face, leaving it taut and misshapen. A filthy apron hung to her knees and she leant heavily on her thick mop as she bent to pull up the socks that had sunk to her ankles, only to have them sag again the moment she took up the howling. At her side a little girl sat on a stool, quite mute, apparently inured to this carnage of human sound. Perhaps she was used to it. Perhaps she had already learned the ancient lesson that sometimes it's safer to lie low till the worst is over. Either way, she kept her small head bent over her lap, rhythmically cracking open pumpkin seeds one by one.

Ignoring her child, the caretaker looked up again, clutching at her mop as if in supplication. 'What do you want? Why have you come? What do you want with us?' she screeched in a mixture of French and Arabic. 'There's nothing here. It's all been taken away. The flat's empty. Cleaned out. You're nothing but a load of interfering old busybodies, all of you. Lice with fleas in your armpits. Ordure, ordure, nothing but ordure. Go away. Go awaaay.'

In Casablanca they call her The Brain; she will say nothing about what happened and yet it's said she knows everything. The caretaker was probably the only constant witness to the comings and goings at 36 Boulevard Abdellah Ben Yacine that were virtually a daily occurrence until February this year.

Ben Yacine is a broad avenue with pollarded limes running down the middle. It is at the smart end of Casablanca's commercial zone, Ain-Sebaa Hay-Mohammadi. You know it's the smart end because the municipality planted the cover of lime trees to help fend off the mad klaxons and the spiteful smell of diesel that are the true badges of the district.

Ain-Sebaa may not be the meanest police precinct in Casablanca, but everyone agrees it's the busiest, and, therefore, the most profitable. The police commissioner of Ain-Sebaa kept a studio at the back of No 36; a man's room with a big bed and an empty fridge, a room that is actually better defined by what went on there than what went into it. It was what the French called une garconniere.

In the three years following the spring of 1990, he escorted more than 1,500 women through its marbled doorway. There were married women looking for jobs, students he spied out around the university, or ordinary young girls out walking with their friends. Very few, it turned out, were prostitutes. Each one made the same journey up the marble stairs, past the old caretaker and her silent child, to the door on the first floor. Here, the police chief would turn the key and step delicately back to allow the women to walk ahead of him over the threshold.

Here, every day except Saturday and Sunday, Mohammed Mustapha Tabet would change into a long white ghandourah, and lay out a prayer mat in the direction of Mecca. After addressing a few words to Allah, he would go to the glass shelves behind the door and discreetly switch on the video camera that was mounted on the top shelf. He ordered the women to undress, and then he raped them.

After some hours, he would allow them to leave, but not without humiliating them one last time. He asked each woman to hand over the national identity card Moroccans must carry at all times or risk imprisonment. And he would add it to the stack already piled by the video tapes on the glass shelf behind the door. Tabet threatened to use the ID cards to compromise his victims, should they make any attempt to expose him. That threat was enough to keep them silent. Only in February, three years after he took the studio, was Tabet finally exposed. Quickly arrested, he was convicted, after a secret trial, of rape, abduction, deflowering of virgins, inciting debauchery, violence and assault. At the end of the trial, he was sentenced to death under the provision of a single and unusual article of the Moroccan Penal Code that allows for capital punishment in cases of 'rape or robbery with torture'. According to Tabet's own lawyer, Article 399 had never been used before. Tabet's 16 co-defendants - including his police boss, four other senior police officers, and the gynaecologist who stitched the hymens of the victims - got jail terms of two years to life. Even the owner of the garconniere, who complained to the court that Tabet never paid the rent, got 10 years.

Tabet's lawyer would argue in court that his client knew he had a dual personality, but that he also suffered from acute loss of memory. In order to persuade a doctor of the seriousness of his malaise, it was first necessary for the police chief to prepare a video dossier. 'A very complete dossier,' the lawyer emphasised. The police had seized 118 video-cassettes from the studio. All but 10 of them featured Tabet raping and buggering. In all it added up to more than 300 hours of film-time. By matching the faces on the screen to those on the ID cards, the police were able to identify 518 of the women by name. Twenty of them were under-age.

That Tabet, a senior police officer, should have been convicted on the strength of a video is no small irony, for the video- camera has replaced photographic stills as a favoured tool of torture and blackmail among the Maghreb security forces. A human rights lawyer in Paris told me of two political prisoners - one in Tunisia and the other in Morocco - whose wives were sent videos of their husbands having sex with other men in jail. Only much later was it proved that both tapes had been faked by the authorities.

Today, the former police commissioner is held in the maximum security jail at Kenitra, near Rabat. He exists in limbo, visited only by his wife and his lawyer, while the Supreme Court judges debate whether or not he should be executed. They are not the only ones.

Ask any gathering of Moroccans what they feel about the case they inevitably call Tabetgate, and a chorus of explanations will come tumbling out. For this is a trial that is about much, much more than a crime. But the explanations they put forward seem extraordinarily superficial. Some - quite a few, actually - say the women got what they deserved; others insist the Tabet case was simply an aberration, and thus holds no lessons for the future; still more will tell you, quite seriously, that this is what happens when you allow your daughters to go to university. Of Tabet's abuse of power, there is no mention. Nor will you hear any discussion of another question - in a country where it is legally permissible to beat your wife, how are women to be protected? What is revealing is not how people explain what happened so much as how they explain it away, shrinking the enormity of the crime to the span of a new joke, a few moments' gossip, drained of pain and thus of significance.

There are those who see this as a sign that Tabetgate has traumatised this nation that is already so insecure, leaving it uncertain where to look for answers; mistrustful of the past and uncertain of its future.

Meanwhile, at home and in the street, ordinary Moroccans debate the rights and wrongs of the death penalty. Some say it is too harsh; a greater number say it is too quick, and not harsh enough. These want Tabet tortured. They want revenge on him, and terrible suffering. How else, they ask, should we avenge a man who treated our daughters so?

Left without answers, they make the journey to the marble entrance of 36 Boulevard Abdellah Ben Yacine. It is, in an oddly tangible way, a mission to touch the hem of evil; to breathe in the air of the garconniere. But all they find

there is a small child pretending to be deaf, and the gnarled

caretaker whose impotent howl echoes their own bewilderment.

Unable to comprehend, you turn away, and long after you

leave you can still hear the screaming. 'Leave us alone. Go away. Go awaaaay.'

IT'S HARD to imagine he was a headmaster once. Mohammed Mustapha Tabet was born the son of a Koranic teacher in Casablanca in 1939. After leaving school, the young Tabet went to teachers' training college and was posted to a small school in the countryside, where he was rapidly promoted. But teaching didn't suit him, and in 1960, he resigned to join the regular police force, the Renseignements Generaux. It was only four years after France and Spain had given up control of Morocco, and the civil service was recruiting local staff in large numbers.

Tabet was bright; more important, he became known for working exceptionally hard. He quickly moved on to the fast track. He became an inspector in Ouarzazate, one of the main towns in the Atlas mountains, in 1961, and in the Atlantic tourist resort of Agadir the following year. Two years later, at the age of 25, he married Fatima Alabaassi and they had three children. Tabet eventually took a second wife - born in 1964, the same year as his first marriage - who bore him two more sons.

In 1972, Tabet was promoted again when he became an officer in Safi, on the coast half-way between Casablanca and Agadir, and a commissioner in the big Atlas town of Beni Mellal four years later. It was in Beni Mellal that Tabet's violent nature first came to public attention. In 1980, he assaulted a young woman, who was forced to jump out of a first-floor window to get away from him. Later, she complained to the local Socialist deputy, who took it up with Rabat. But the only result was that Tabet was moved to head office. In 1985, he was promoted yet again, to the top job at Ain-Sebaa in Casablanca.

The coast road that hugs the sea all the way from Casablanca port to the capital city of Rabat starts off by snaking through Ain-Sebaa. The road is really a great greasy passageway where lorry-drivers race their engines and deposit small gobs of diesel on passers-by. Along it sit the landmarks of the district; huge factory forecourts overshadowed by neon signs flashing such names as Marim, Marex, Mareng, Maropneu and Marofac. This is Casablanca's commercial centre.

A high wall along one pavement blocks out the sea as if it might prove too distracting. And even when the beach shows through a hole in the wall, the truck-drivers of Ain-Sebaa take no notice. They are paid by the journey, and are too busy racing each other to care about the scenery. Less than 30 per cent of the city's population lives in this quartier, and yet it produces - or rather, its factories, workshops, bars and flophouses produce - well over half the city's wealth.

To be the police chief of Ain-Sebaa, therefore, is to be one of the most powerful men in Casablanca. The merchants of Ain- Sebaa need favours and protection; Tabet saw to it that these were given. He and his group of loyal policemen would clear up bureaucratic blockages, settle disputes and smooth out licensing difficulties with the ease of a master masseur. Those who paid Tabet for his services found that life was happily free of the surveillance and harassment that feature so regularly in Moroccan life. Take just one example, a man called Mohamed Akil, alias le Boulanger, the Baker.

Le Boulanger already had 10 children when he decided that being an assistant baker wasn't going to get him very far, so he bought two small shops - little off-licences, really - and then in 1985, the year that Tabet came to Ain-Sebaa, Boulanger bought his first bar, which was named the Rabat, on the Boulevard Moulay Smal. It was nothing smart, but he didn't mind. Tabet saw to it that when barkeepers elsewhere in the city obeyed the law and closed up at 10 o'clock, heavy drinkers could move on to Ain-Sebaa and still find drink on tap. It goes without saying that the price went up at the same time.

According to one big bar-owner in the area, three-quarters of Ain-Sebaa's liquor takings after 10pm went to Tabet, who took it on himself to distribute them among his coterie of junior policemen. Despite the rake-off, Boulanger was making enough money by 1991 to have bought 14 bars in the district, including one on Boulevard Abdellah Ben Yacine, where the commissioner kept his studio.

After Tabet was convicted, Boulanger felt frightened and exposed. He turned himself in. He played down the connection with Tabet. 'Yes, it is true I knew him,' he is reported to have said. 'But not very well. I would lend him money from time to time.' Boulanger did indeed know him, but lending money to Tabet was one of the few things he probably wasn't called upon to do. According to the police statement to the trial court, when the authorities froze Tabet's two private bank accounts they found 24m dirhams ( pounds 1.8m), a sum that would have been difficult to accumulate on a salary of less than pounds 2,000 a year. Of that, Boulanger had deposited Dir850,000 ( pounds 62,000) in cheques, but a much larger amount, he admitted later, was paid to Tabet in cash. With his new wealth, Tabet bought himself a blue Mercedes. He had a chauffeur, the better to be noticed in a city where money counts for a lot. He put on weight, and bought a portable phone on which he squawked orders to his subordinates. And he picked up girls.

It is hard to understand how, in an Islamic country, a young woman will get into a stranger's car on the strength of a promised Danish pastry and a hint of menace. But that is what happened. Some people put it down to what they call 'le petrolove,' or the influence of the Arabs from the Gulf who come to Morocco in search of a good time; others blame the disintegration of family life. Either way, there are many Moroccans who believe the women deserved what happened to them. Yet many of Tabet's victims said they suspected nothing when the man in the smart suit would pull up at the kerb, introduce himself as Hajj Hamid - not just any Hamid, but one who had made the pilgrimage to Mecca - and offer a girl a lift on her way. Certainly, the two women students who climbed into the blue Mercedes on 1 February said later that they weren't frightened when it pulled up alongside them.

Both were in their last year at college, 23 years old, and had known each other since school. Both came from large families where they didn't get much privacy, so they would go - like many Casablanca youngsters - to revise for their exams in the Gardens of the Arab League, because it was much quieter than at home. The Gardens are also a notorious cruising spot, and the man in the Mercedes seemed no different from any other kerb-crawler, trying it on and shouting, 'Ciao, cherie. Ca va?'

'He just looked prosperous,' one of them said much later. That day, the young women were on their way home, so they gladly accepted his offer of a lift. They took little notice when he directed his chauffeur to take another road, claiming he hadn't had lunch and wanted to stop for a pastry at a shop called Aboud, nor were they particularly disturbed when the car drew up at No 36 and he invited them upstairs. When the police gynaecologist made her report three days later, she said both women had been so badly assaulted they could barely walk.

Two young women complaining to the police would not have been enough to secure Tabet's arrest, Moroccans say. Another woman, who had lodged a complaint in 1990 that Tabet had raped and assaulted her, had been persuaded by his immediate boss to withdraw the accusation. The others had been too fearful to come forward at all. Thus, Moroccans insist, there must have been more to the complaint lodged by the two women in February. It's generally thought that, although they both came from poor families, they were also well connected. One of the women has the same family name as one of the King's advisers, although it isn't clear how closely they are related. Others believe Tabet may already have been under surveillance; all that was needed was the physical evidence. Either way, when they lodged their complaint on 2 February, the two young women were directed by the public prosecutor's office not to the regular police, but to the Gendarmerie, a force that is answerable only to the Palace and remains the principal rival of the Renseignements Generaux.

The gendarmes did not know at first who they were dealing with. All the two girls could tell them was where they had been assaulted. On 2 February, the day after the attack, a detachment of junior gendarmes was sent to 36 Boulevard Abdellah Ben Yacine. They opened the door of the studio and within moments 'Hajj Hamid' arrived, summoned, no doubt, by the caretaker. Tabet introduced himself. 'He was so charming that day,' one of the gendarmes recalls. 'He gave us his name and told us he rented the studio. He also said that even though we didn't have a search warrant, he didn't mind us looking around and he would do anything to help us.' Tabet was standing, as he said this, with his back against the open door.

The two young women had identified their assailant, but it was only when the gendarmes returned later in the afternoon, after Tabet had left, that they noticed the video tapes neatly lined up on the shelf behind the door. Beside them was the neat pile of identity cards. All of these they took back to headquarters, leaving behind a safe that was too heavy to carry away by hand and a chain which they used to seal the door. They left no guard. Tabet returned later the same night with a gang of eight young men, who broke the chain and carried away the safe. It has not been seen since.

None of the gendarmes believed at the time that this was anything other than a routine investigation. Indeed, it was not until they inserted the first of the tapes into the video player that they understood how serious the case was.

Tabet was, if anything, even more blase. The last thing he told his wife as the police arrived to arrest him on 3 February was to make sure she got the battery of the Mercedes seen to. He'd be home in a couple of days.

ALTHOUGH the authorities were silent for eight days, rumours about a sex scandal began immediately. 'At first it was seeping, then leaking, then flooding,' said Mohamed Jamali, who covered the trial for the Communist newspaper Al Bayane. 'In no time everyone knew.' Even if the authorities had wanted to hush it up and discipline Tabet internally, the sheer numbers of women, and the irrefutable evidence on the video tapes, made it imperative for the government to be seen to be taking vigorous action.

Although it was Ramadan, the authorities decided to press on quickly. Less than a month after his arrest, Tabet's trial opened on 25 February, in Room 7, the grand panelled courtroom of the Casablanca Appeal Court. The police commissioner was not tried on specific counts, but under a broad criminal indictment generally referred to - in both French and Arabic - as 'an affair of public morals'.

Most criminal trials in Morocco are heard by a single judge, except where there is a chance of the death penalty being invoked. The Tabet case was considered so serious the public prosecutor sent it directly to the criminal chamber of the Court of Appeal, which is presided over by a panel of six judges. There was, as always in Morocco, no jury. 'At the start, we wanted to open the hearings to the public,' explained one of the judges. 'But this proved impossible.' Fearful of the consequences of a public trial that might spiral out of control, the presiding judge had the court cleared after the second day of hearings, using the excuse that it was Ramadan - and that during Holy Month, 'no insalubrious thoughts must pass through the mind of the believer'. He ordered that the trial be closed to all but those directly involved. The Moroccan Bar Association responded by going on strike. But the judge's decision held.

Never had a criminal case in Morocco excited so much attention, nor generated so much political anxiety. It was impossible to believe that Tabet had been able to attack so many women without the knowledge - or indeed the protection - of his superiors. This is an election year, and the trial of a police chief was quickly adopted as emblematic of a more general dissatisfaction within the country. The three largest women's rights groups publicly called on the government to pay them one dirham each, a symbolic fine that would assuage the insult to womankind. 'It was an opportunity just waiting to be seized,' said their lawyer, Khalid Naciri. The women were turned down, but not before they had drawn considerable attention to their cause. When the authorities then banned a women's march - organised last month to protest at Tabet's crimes and the decision not to pay symbolic compensation for them - the ban drew condemnation from all over the world. The American human rights group, Middle East Watch, said the ban 'was evidence that the government continues to impose constraints on human rights activity.'

The judge's decision to hold the trial in camera was widely seen as a way of stifling public fascination. For those who remained inside the wood-panelled room - about 60 people, including defendants, lawyers and witnesses - the fascination of the trial remained not whether Tabet would be convicted, for he had already pleaded guilty, but how he would behave in court and what mitigating pleas his defence would put forward.

'There were three Tabets that we saw emerge during the trial,' one of the defence lawyers recalls. 'At first he was

incredibly arrogant. He wouldn't hesitate to upbraid the judge, and accuse him of not questioning the prosecution's lawyers properly, of not doing his job.'

The defence that Tabet wanted put forward was equally arrogant. There was no question of violence, he told the court. What's more, the women wanted sex, and even asked for it. If Tabet was a womaniser, well he wasn't the only one. In one celebrated response, Tabet told the judge: 'They liked me. I gave them pleasure. You just don't know what Moroccan women are like. I bet they could teach you a thing or two.'

In all, 18 women appeared as witnesses, testifying against him. The same 18 brought a civil suit for damages. When the trial was over, each was awarded between Dir30,000 and Dir150,000, to be paid out of Tabet's seized assets.

The trial lasted less than three weeks, but the days were long. The court would sit for most of the afternoon, rising only for the breaking of the fast, and then resume work at 10pm, continuing into the early hours of the morning. The second Tabet emerged as his arrogance faded. Exhausted by hours of questioning, one lawyer says, 'Tabet suddenly grew old.' He would ask for a chair, saying he couldn't answer any more questions unless he sat down. 'He began to look terrible,' the lawyer remembers. 'But not as terrible as he did after the tapes.'

'I'll never forget that day as long as I live,' says Khalid Naciri, who was one of the few lawyers admitted to the court on the day of the screening. The 108 tapes featuring Tabet had been reduced to a montage of the worst scenes, lasting just over an hour. 'It was terrible, terrible stuff, made worse because they kept stopping and starting, rewinding and fast-forwarding, fixing on images they wanted to examine. It was just dreadful.'

The video equipment in the garconniere had been fixed to the bookcase opposite the bed. Although there were two cameras, it is one particular angle that forms the principal material on the tape. In the first scene, Tabet is forcing two sisters to fondle one another. Then he assaults them. While he sodomises them one after the other, he hits them repeatedly. One sister, the court was told, has since 'lost her mind'.

Over the next hour, scene after scene unfolded: Tabet raping a woman in front of her four-year-old son; Tabet raping a virgin teenager who is screaming, with blood visible on her thighs; Tabet, with another man named Dou Naim, sodomising a woman whom Naim is assaulting at the same time - in the following scene, the two men change places; Tabet sodomising the daughter of an officer of the Surete Nationale, the state security bureau, while he talks on his portable phone, ordering a junior colleague to begin an investigation of her father. The girl is crying and you can see the blood streaked across her buttocks.

One defence lawyer collapsed after the viewing, and was rushed to hospital. The next day, the chief prosecutor, Nourredine Riahi, called for Tabet to be sentenced to death and for all the tapes to be destroyed.

TABET'S CONVICTION was not only a triumph for the women he had raped, who had, in effect, brought him to trial, but it was a judicial victory unprecedented in a country in which the voices of women are traditionally ignored. Tabet's case had upset the status quo, and its effects had spread as far as the Palace. They are unlikely to subside. The Supreme Court is not expected to rule on Tabet's sentence for another year. If it is upheld, he still has the right to appeal personally to the King for clemency. I had already been told that King Hassan was nervous about the case. The King of Morocco rules not by divine right, but under the terms of an unwritten contract with his subjects. They offer him loyalty in exchange for his protection. The giant umbrella he carries on ceremonial occasions is the symbol of that protection. That's why so many recent Moroccan cartoons feature leaking brollies.

'Hassan cannot do what he wants,' explained Hamid Barrada, a Moroccan who now works in Paris as senior editor of the celebrated weekly, Jeune Afrique. 'It looks as if he has all the power in the world, but he doesn't. Tabet, as a police officer, acts in the name of the King. But Tabet behaved as if he could do (whatever he wanted), and that is where he crossed the line.'

In Morocco, the Tabet case is forcing the regime to examine a rottenness at its core that it has never acknowledged before. Public hunger, if nothing else, demands it. While the official Moroccan press barely mentioned the case, opposition newspapers multiplied their sales five or six times during the trial. Khalid Naciri, former president of the leading Moroccan human rights organisation, and one of the principal lawyers at the trial, believes the government's position boils down to something quite simple, and quite irrevocable. 'We have lost our respect for authority. Now Moroccans look at a man in a position of power - not just a policeman - and they say, 'You're rotten. We always suspected you were; now we know.' That is very, very dangerous for the government.'

Would the trial also turn out to have been dangerous for the victims? In any other developed country, these women would have been on television, proclaiming a great victory for womankind. Not so in Morocco. After the trial ended, I went to look for Abdellatif Bouachrine, the lawyer who had represented many of Tabet's victims. My search led me to an office in Derb el Kabir, a crowded suburb in the south-east of the city, where the people live in cheap concrete apartment blocks.

Far from the law courts and the broad esplanades of the Arab League Gardens, Derb el Kabir is a rabbit warren of streets so small they appear on every map of the city as a single block stamped 'Quartier Populaire'. The smell here is not of diesel fumes and commerce, but of wood fires, spices and, most of all, people. The street ahead of us is so packed you can't tell where the pavement ends and the road begins. The taxi driver crawls along, using his hooter to shove the crowd forward. Eventually we are brought to a standstill by a clump of chanting old men in robes. They are a choir of blind mendicants and cannot see the car approaching. The taxi driver and I proceed on foot, and gradually make our way throught the narrowing streets to 1 Place Damas.

A dark stairwell smelling faintly of urine leads to the top of the building where Bouachrine has his offices - one of a small number of advocates persuaded by the smooth president of the Casablanca Bar to set up practice in the poorer parts of the city. His secretary welcomes us in and offers tea. Bouachrine is a small man, although not without vanity. As he speaks, he checks the top of his head with his right hand to make sure his bald patch isn't showing through. I ask him about the effects of the trial on the victims. Before speaking, he pats himself with both hands about the head. 'I know many of these women. Two of them had married since they were attacked by Tabet. They had not told their husbands of what had happened, and now their husbands are divorcing them. The police, when they came looking for the victims, were not careful or discreet. Now everybody in the quartier knows which are the victims who live here.

'The women are frightened. I have another friend, a lawyer, whose client came to him because he is the brother of a schoolfriend of hers. She wants none of the money from Tabet. She has given it all to the lawyer. She wouldn't know what to do with it, and she still doesn't want her family to know what happened to her.

'You see, these women are frightened. Everyone thinks it's because they are ashamed. Yes, many of them are moving to other areas. But that is because they want to make new lives. No, it's not that they are ashamed. It's not that at all. They could talk to you anonymously, and no one would ever know. I know that. It's not they who are ashamed; it's the government that is ashamed. The regime does not want them to speak. The president of the Casablanca Bar has refused his permission. He said we have commented enough on this affair, and no more talk is needed. Therefore, I regret. You cannot meet them.'

If Bouachrine is visibly fearful of crossing the authorities who want a dampener put on the whole affair, and the women assaulted will not speak of the changes it has wrought in their lives, Tabet's own lawyer is even more anxious to downplay it.

A smooth, unctuous man, with a small goatee, Mohammed Afrit Bennani looks like a thin Peter Ustinov in lawyer's silk. Behind his back, he is called The Devil, though whether for his name (which means Satan in Arabic) or for his court-room manner is unclear. Unlike Bouachrine's office, Afrit Bennani's chambers are in the smartest part of town, right by the law courts. There is a brass plaque on the door, and red velveteen curtains that cast a permanent darkness over the room.

How does it feel to represent public enemy No 1?

'My client,' he says, looking up to check I am listening, 'is not a criminal. He is perhaps unwell. He is perhaps even a sick man. He has powerful urges. He needs sex more than many men. Sometimes for four or five hours a day. For a man of 54, I admit that is unusual. But it does not make him a criminal.'

But you saw the tapes. Weren't they acts of violence? 'That was not violence, my dear. It was a bit of rough sex. Just normal rough sex, like you would have with your husband or I even with my wife.'

But one of the lawyers collapsed and had to be taken to hospital? 'Clearly, he is not in the habit of watching pornographic films.'

Is that how you would describe them? As pornographic films? As rough sex? 'Yes, rough sex. That is all. No violence. Of course, a woman who has never tried anal sex may find it painful. The flesh will tear, and she will scream. It will be rough. And there may even be blood. But then, you know, some women like that.'

So why has your client been sentenced to death?

'An unfortunate error, which will rectified by the Supreme Court. Of that, I am certain.'

Maybe I was having my leg pulled. I had been warned in Paris that Moroccans love being misunderstood. 'It gives us a feeling of superiority,' Hamid Barrad told me, 'a feeling of self-protection, and a sense that the foreigner is at a disadvantage.'

However, when I checked in at the airport as I was leaving Morocco, a police officer approached me. He asked me to hand over all my notes. He said they belonged to Morocco and not to me. And although I had earlier sent home copies of everything I had - transcripts of interviews and legal documents - all the notes I had with me that day were seized without explanation. If the government, or even men like Bennani, do not want to confront what the Tabet case tells them about their own country, still less, it seemed, do they want a foreigner to do it for them. I should have listened more carefully to the caretaker, for she was the one who first said what so many Moroccans told me in different ways. 'Go away. Go awaaay.'

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