Death on the Costa lifts veil on Morocco's royal court

Hischam Mandari went from favourite son of King Hassan to hunted pariah. Elizabeth Nash reports on his assassination amid tales of medieval-style palace dramas involving concubines and treachery

When Spanish police first came upon the body of Hicham Mandari lying face down in a garage between Mijas and Fuengirola on the Costa del Sol with a bullet in his head, they thought him just one more victim of a revenge attack among gangsters, typical of the region. Or they said they did. But the death of the young Moroccan has involved the secret services of four countries and turned a spotlight upon the secretive, sometimes menacing world of the Moroccan royal court.

When Spanish police first came upon the body of Hicham Mandari lying face down in a garage between Mijas and Fuengirola on the Costa del Sol with a bullet in his head, they thought him just one more victim of a revenge attack among gangsters, typical of the region. Or they said they did. But the death of the young Moroccan has involved the secret services of four countries and turned a spotlight upon the secretive, sometimes menacing world of the Moroccan royal court.

Mandari's body was found around midnight on 4 August, but it was not until 11 days later that police confirmed the death and ventured that the assassination by a single 9mm bullet shot upwards from the back of the neck bore the hallmark of a professional contract killing. The crime was "the work of common delinquents, very probably French or Moroccan acting under contract", police said. But under contract from whom? "We are becoming aware that the victim had created a long list of enemies," a source said with more than the usual circumlocutory caution in the days that followed.

Witnesses said the victim, aged 33, was hunted down to the spot where he died by a person with Arab features. Some testified to having seen Mandari in the streets accompanied by three "Arabs or Maghrebis". Others swore they saw two men flee the scene to jump into a van driven by a third man.

"The only thing we know for sure," confided a baffled police source, "is that Mandari was killed the day he arrived in Spain. Effectively, he headed directly to his rendezvous with death."

He had already survived three assassination attempts - the last in Paris in April 2003 sent him to hospital with three bullets in his body. He came out stuffed with cortisone and with a serious injury to his right leg. More than a month after his death, no further leads have appeared, and the circumstances of his death have become more mysterious.

Investigations have partially uncovered a tale of alleged currency forgery, blackmail and corruption surrounding the court of the late Moroccan king, Hassan II, where Mandari was once a trusted courtier.

The tables turned brutally against the ertswhile golden boy of the Moroccan jetset, who went so far as to declare himself King Hassan II's lovechild, and whom the authorities in Rabat came to dismiss as a dangerous delinquent and fantasist. From favourite son to hunted pariah, Mandari went on the run while threatening to spill the beans on palace dramas involving concubines and secret treachery that would shatter the modern image today's Moroccan royals have been trying to project.

While Spanish authorities kept quiet over the identity of the body in the carpark, French secret services tracked down a Frenchman of Algerian origin who had provided Mandari with a false Italian driving licence in the name of Ben Al Asan Ala Laoui Icam. The man apparently saw Mandari just before he took the flight to Malaga on the afternoon of 4 August. "I'm going to Spain for a couple of days perhaps to Italy," Mandari told him over a coffee, and in an unprecedented gesture, gave his accomplice his address book and a mobile phone. Moroccan, Bahreini and Saudi security services have since become involved.

Spain later complained that the French dragged their feet for five days before revealing the man's real name. Hopes of getting a lead from his notebook were dashed. "He did everything in code," police said.

One story for the murder was that Madari had made a romantic tryst with a young woman with whom he was infatuated and on whom he lavished money. She is said to be a senior member of the Moroccan hierarchy who was on holiday in Marbella just down the coast. Another hypothesis, suggested by al-Jazeera television, was that Mandari was heading for the Spanish costa in pursuit of a business opportunity: he planned to acquire a local radio station to beam broadcasts in favour of Moroccan democracy to his compatriots across the Mediterranean.

The Spanish newspaper El Pais indicated that Mandari had given the Moroccan authorities ample grounds to wish him out of the way: "It is logical to give priority to a suspected act of revenge of Moroccan origin, since Mandari constantly made threats against Rabat." But a French security source, quoted by the Paris-based Libération, was more circumspect: "Since we're dealing with an individual implicated in so many shady activities and who had so many enemies, it's necessary to look in all possible directions."

The scene was the perfect choice for such a crime. The Costa del Sol, hangout for rich gangsters from everywhere, has become so used anonymous contract killings that it became dubbed the Costa del Plomo - the Coast of Lead. Here, far from prying eyes, whether they be the forces of law and order or rival gangs, criminal networks mastermind lucrative drug, money-laundering and revenge deals.

Spain's sun-bleached, palm tree-lined, gangland paradise is not so far from the environment in which Mandari grew up and from which he was expelled when he turned against his powerful protectors in 1999.

"A future chronicler of Morocco's ruling dynasty should mark the name of Hicham Mandari as that of the man who pierced the thick walls of the royal palace and revealed the secrets of a monarchy of divine right made mortal by the human, too human, frailties of the reigning family," wrote Le Monde.

Brought up by his mother, Sheherazade Mandari, née Fechtali, the young Hicham grew up in the 1980s under the protection of Hafid Benhachem, a future national security director, whose two sons became his boyhood friends. Never short of money, the trio used to tear round Rabat on a moped and frequent the capital's smartest disco, the Jefferson.

Hicham then eloped with Hayat Filali, the daughter of a senior royal official. The couple were caught, but instead of being punished, received the blessing of the king to marry. This happy outcome was arranged by Hayat's aunt, Farida Cherkaoui, the king's favourite concubine.

She further arranged that Mandari join the court as a member of the security department, which was headed by Mohamed Mediouri, who happened to be in love with King Hassan's wife, who was known as "mother of the princes". (When the king died in 1999, Mediouri married her and they still live together in Versailles and Marakech.)

Mandari lost no time in winning over the women of the harem by showing them with gifts. He brought telephones and computers for the king's concubines, who were kept in seclusion and attended by white-robed servants.

By the late 1990s, King Hassan, though weakened with age, still terrorised his subjects through the arbitrary use of arrest, torture or secret prisons. But within the ochre-washed palace walls, he could not control the avarice among his own servants, who - fearful of their status after the king's death - plundered silverware, paintings, carpets and furniture.

Mandari, through his accomplices in the harem and other courtiers, gained access to the palace strongbox, where he helped himself to several of the king's blank cheques. These he used to strip the king's accounts of several hundred million dollars, plus crown jewels and secret documents, including an inventory of royal possessions abroad - or at least that is what he intimated later, in a brazen attempt to blackmail the royal house.

He was confronted one day by a court official who had been asked by a Luxembourg bank to authenticate the royal signature on a huge cheque. Warned by court spies of the king's wrath, Mandari fled abroad with his wife and their baby daughter.

"His majesty entrusted me with an inquiry into the thefts," King Hassan's Interior Minister, Driss Basri, told Le Monde. "I think Mandari had in his possession three or four state secrets." Mr Basri made this confession after falling out with Hassan's son Mohammed and fleeing to exile in Paris.

Mandari left Paris for Brussels, Frankfurt and finally reached the US, where he launched accusations against the Moroccan crown. On 6 June, 1999, he took out an advertisement in The Washington Post addressed to the king, in which he declared he was "a victim of lies" and demanded "a royal pardon". He went on: "You must understand, Majesty, that for my defence and those close to me, I have prepared dossiers containing information ... damaging to your image throughout the world." A fortnight later, he narrowly escaped being kidnapped in Florida.

King Hassan died in July 1999 and was succeeded by Mohammed, who sought to cover up the scandal and extradite the former courtier to Morocco. Mandari was arrested in the US in connection with the circulation of falsified Bahrein dinars to the value of €350m (£238m), fabricated in Argentina, and spent three years fighting his extradition. He was freed in 2002 and extradited to France, in a brokered deal under which France promised not to hand him over to Morocco.

In 2003, his wife left him and returned home, whereupon Mandari prounced himself Hassan's love child by Farida Cherkaoui and hence brother to the reigning monarch. Ms Cherkaoui has subsequently gone to ground. At this point he was arrested on charges of blackmailing the president of the Morocco's Foreign Trade Bank, Othman Benjelloun, one of the richest men in Morocco. Freed on bail in January 2004, Mandari was now fearing for his life.

Mandari planned to call a press conference in the glitzy pleasure resort of Marbella on the eve of his death, to lay bare "the blackest pages of corruption of the kingdom now ruled by Hassan's son Mohammed ... and call upon democratic forces to fight for a state of law", according to Madrid's La Razon newspaper.

Mandari's opposition movement, the National Council of Free Moroccans, was dismissed by the Moroccan weekly Le Journal in July, just days before his death, as "a still-born fraud composed of two fanatics". Moroccan authorities were none the less alarmed when he asked the well-known left-wing Spanish lawyer Cristine Almeida to help him obtain a resident's permit.

Mandari told Le Journal in his last interview that he "planned a press campaign particularly damaging to Morocco". He also hinted at scandal in France: "I know all the French ministers," he said. "I know Chirac very well. I called [the Interior Minister] Dominique de Villepin but he has been told not to talk to me. I know lots of things about other politicians too."

The dissident Moroccan writer Ali Lmrabet described Mandari as "the man who knew too much". He "gave the impression of knowing many people in the palace", and would show to anyone interested a photocopy of a Moroccan diplomatic passport in which he is described as "special adviser to Hassan II", Mr Lmrabet wrote in the Spanish El Mundo daily.

Mandari was like an orchid, a friend recalled: "Beautiful to look at, but rooted in mud." Whoever crushed this exotic bloom, few in the Moroccan royal court will mourn his passing.

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