Monday, October 30, 2006

Life and death of Mehdi Ben Barka


A socialist kidnapped and murdered 41 years ago has returned to haunt the screen and point the accusing finger at the three "Western democracies" and one pro-Western Arab kingdom whose security services were involved in his murder.

Serge Le Peron's film J'ai vu tuer Ben Barka (November 2005)now showing in Britain as "I Saw Ben Barka Get Killed", is a film noir thriller about a real kidnapping and murder, that of Moroccan left-wing leader Mehdi Ben Barka, who was "disappeared" in Paris by French secret scrvice agents working with the Moroccan security police.

The film actually starts with another death, that of Georges Figon, a crook and con-man (played by Charles Berling), who was employed to ensnare Ben Barka with talk of a film to be made. Figon later fell out with his employers over payment, and started talking to journalists, film-makers and anyone else about what he knew. When he was due to be called as a witness in the trial of secret service men his body was found in a pool of blood at his home. The official reports said "suicide" , but whoever arranged it made a mistake by leaving the wrong gun. The film goes back over Figon's story, that he did not get to tell in court. I haven't seen it yet, though I am told it is a good movie well worth seeing.

But of course, whatever the artistic use of this side-view, the really important figure is that of Ben Barka himself. *

Born in 1920 in a poor neighbourhood of Rabat, the son of a low-ranking civil servant, Mehdi Ben Barka was the first Moroccan to obtain a degree in mathematics from a French university. A leader in the nationalist Istiqlal party which led Morocco to independence, he found his hopes for democracy and development in conflict with the monarchy and right-wing, and quit with others to form the National Union of Popular Forces, UNFP, now known as Socialist Union of Popular Forces(USFP).

Exiled in 1963, the Moroccan opposition hero became an international figure. In Algiers he met Che Guevera, Malcolm X, and Amilcar Cabral, leader of African guerrillas fighting Portuguese colonial rule in Cape Verde and Guinea. Like them he was to be assassinated.

Due to chair the first Tricontinental Conference planned for January 1966 in Havana, Ben Barka told a press conference, "the two currents of the world revolution will be represented there: the current which emerged with the October Revolution and that of the national liberation revolution".
He said the struggles against colonialism and Apartheid would be linked with support for Cuba against US imperialism.

Here, in an interview in 1999, Ben Barka's son Bachir takes up the story:
"On Friday 29th October 1965, at 12.30 pm, Mehdi Ben Barka, my father, had an appointment at the Brasserie Lipp, on the boulevard Saint Germain, in Paris, with a journalist, a film producer and a scriptwriter, to discuss the preparation of a film about national liberation movements in Africa, Asia and Latin America. The film was to be shown at the opening of the Tricontinental Conference in Havana in January 1966. The title of the film was to be Basta!

"This appointment was a trap. Before his arrival at the Brasserie, my father was stopped by two French policemen, who showed their police cards and asked him to follow them. He got into their official car. He was calm and confident. But in this car were other individuals, an agent, or "honourable corespondent" according to the conventional expression, of the SDECE, that is to say the French secret services, and a criminal, a henchman. The SDECE agent was wearing a false mustache and a wig so that my father, who knew him, would not recognize him.

"The car moved off in the direction of the suburbs to the south of Paris, to Fontenay-le-Vicomte to be precise, and stopped in front of the house of a notorious gangster, Georges Boucheseiche. From this point on, I would say, certainties end and speculation begins as to what then happened to my father. What is known is that General Oufkir, the Moroccan Minister of the Interior, was informed that the "parcel" had been delivered. His deputy, commander Ahmed Dlimi, was also informed. The following day, they both arrived in Paris.
There were various comings and goings at the house. We do not know exactly who by, but we do know that from this time on we lose all trace of my father. We can suppose that he was assassinated, but we don't know who who killed him, nor how, nor the whereabouts of his corpse. Was the corpse kept in France, or was it sent to Morocco? Or else, as some people claim, was the Mossad, the Israeli secret services, charged with getting rid of it? To this day, 34 years after the events, we still have no definite answers to these questions.
From the outset, the elimination of my father was one of the political objectives of the Moroccan authorities. This objective resulted in several attempted assassinations and two official death sentences. The ideas my father developed were seen as a political alternative to those of the regime which had shown it's bankruptcy socially and economically.

"The Moroccan regime was not alone in this affair. It was helped from within the French secret services and by the crooks who worked for them. Coordinated action between French and Moroccan police had already been used against the Moroccan opposition in France. There was also involvement by the Mossad which gave at least "logistical" support to the Moroccan secret services in the perpetration of the crime. Numerous investigations carried out in Israel, in France, and in the United States enable us to confirm categorically the involvement of the Mossad in this affair. From 1967 onwards, revelations in the Israeli press about the involvement of the Mossad in the assassination of my father indicate that this led to an important crisis in the government and even to the resignation of the Israeli Prime Minister at that time.

"One can also assume that the CIA was involved in one way or another. My father was preparing, in 1965, the Tricontinental Conference which was to bring together representatives of national liberation movements and progressive parties from Africa, Asia and Latin America. At the time, many African countries were still under colonial rule. Apartheid still held sway in South Africa. Portugal still had it's colonial possessions and even in those countries which had gained their independence, important mass struggles were developing. The Havana conference was to lay the basis for concerted solidarity action between these different struggles. Mehdi Ben Barka was the Chairman of the committee preparing this initiative and his activity could not escape the attention of the most powerful imperialist country. The conference was held in January 1966 but, unfortunately, without the man who had prepared it".

In Morocco there was a general strike over Ben Barka's disappearance, which testifies both to his popularity, and the people's reasonable assumption that their government's skulduggery was involved.

Israeli Connection: No Bul

In September 1966 a sensational Israeli magazine called Bul reported that Israel's Mossad secret service, working through a Moroccan Jewish businessman based in Europe, had helped organise Ben Barka's kidnap for the Moroccan secret police. Bul means "bullseye" , and for scoring this one the magazine had all its copies seized. Editors Maxim Gilan and Shmuel Mor were tried in secret, on charges of endangering state security, and jailed.
Whether or not he had known about the operation, Prime Minister Levi Eshkol was worried about the effect on Israel's international relations, and tried to suppress information, but internal conflict in both the secret state and political leadership ensured the story was leaked not just to Bul but to the international press, and so Israeli papers followed.
Mossad and Moroccan Internal Security Minister Muhammad Oufkir had got to know each other. In 1961, after a Mossad-run ship carrying Moroccan Jews to Israel went down with the loss of 44 lives General Oufkir cracked down, rounding up and torturing members of the Zionist underground Misgeret, but no Mossad agents were caught. After King Hassan II came to the throne the Moroccan authorities began facilitating emigration. In 1965 General Oufkir was secretly brought to Israel by David Kimche of Mossad. He asked for the Israeli agency's help in tracking down and murdering Ben Barka.
(see Israel's Secret Wars, Ian Black and Benny Morris, 1991).

American angle (or Angleton?)

If Charles de Gaulle was exasperated to find the SDECE agents sometimes following what seemed like their own policy rather than his, it may be not just because old habits died hard for right-wing agents, veterans of the struggle over Algeria, but because they looked up to a higher authority than their own government- the American CIA.

Around the time of Ben Barka's kidnapping the Israeli Mossad was moving into closer working with the CIA. The US agency's James Jesus Angleton, notorious for plotting false-flag operations and political coups, was keen to involve them.

In his early days as a leader of Moroccan independence Ben Barka had caught the eye of the US State Department which wanted to replace French influence. He was invited to Washington to meet with top government officials and Congressmen. But when he was accused of plotting against the king, and even more when he started supporting Cuba and talking about the October Revolution, the interest was bound to change.

Time magazine reported in its international edition of December 29, 1975, that in 1964 Minister Oufkir had asked the U.S. ambassador in Rabat for U.S. help in "bringing Ben Barka before a Moroccan court." The magazine said this request was relayed to CIA headquarters in Europe, but "there is no evidence that the CIA ever accepted the invitation." The CIA may bring people in but is not noted for getting them to court.

In June 2001 a retired Moroccan secret policeman Ahmed Boukhari stated that three CIA agents had been assigned to the Moroccan Counter-Subversion police bureau in Rabat from 1960 to 1967. Boukhari, said a CIA agent known to him as "Colonel Martin" followed the preparations to abduct Ben Barka and would have known about his death. According to Boukhari, Ben Barka had died during interrogation in a villa south of Paris. He said Ben Barka's body was then taken back to Morocco and destroyed in a vat of acid. The acid vat, whose plans were reproduced by the newspapers, had been constructed under instructions from "Colonel Martin", who had learnt this technique for making corpses disappear while working in the Shah's Iran in the 1950s.

According to another account, Ben Barka's body was encased in concrete and buried outside Paris, except for the head which General Oufkir took back to show the Moroccan king. Whatever the grisly truth, the body has not been found.

On March 1, 1976, Bachir Ben Barka, requested documents pertaining to his father under the Freedom of Information act. The CIA, in a reply dated August 11, 1976, referred to 1,846 pertinent documents, but later declined to release them, citing "national security". While a few documents were later sent to the applicant, the vast majority have never been released. Since Boukhari's statements on US involvment, Human Rights Watch has made several requests to the US authorities to release the files they have.

* This is not the first film inspired by the Ben Barka story. The affaire has inspired fictional thrillers. But more important, Moroccan-born Simone Bitton, best-known here for her film Mur, about people either side of Israel's "security fence" or Apartheid wall, has directed a film called Ben Barka; The Moroccan Equation, about Ben Barka's life and significance as a political leader, rather than just the circumstances of his death.

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