RABAT, Morocco (AP) — A Moroccan appeals court handed down harsher sentences for the defendants convicted in the April 2011 bombing of a cafe in Marrakech that killed 17 people, most of them foreign tourists.
In addition to confirming the death sentence for the ringleader, Adel al-Othmani, the court on Friday night changed the life sentence of his associate Hakim Dah into capital punishment.
Six other defendants convicted of being associated with the bombing had their prison sentences of two and four years increased to 10 years. Only one defendant, Abdel-Fattah Dehaj, kept his two-year sentence.
Mohammed Najimi, who had originally been given a two-year suspended sentence for providing evidence for the prosecution against al-Othmani also had his sentence increased to 10 years.
The April 28 attack shook relatively peaceful Morocco, a staunch U.S. ally that drew nearly 10 million tourists last year to its sandy beaches, desert and mountain landscapes, and historic sites.
The blast killed eight French tourists in addition to British, Swiss, Moroccan and Portuguese victims in the popular Argana cafe overlooking the main square of historic Marrakech. The trial was closely followed by the French press.
Police originally believed the al-Qaida terrorist network was behind the attack, but in the end concluded that it was largely the work of al-Othmani, who had been inspired by the militant group.
Al-Othmani was convicted in October of dressing like a tourist and planting the bomb in the Argana cafe before setting it off with his mobile phone. The others were charged with membership in a criminal organization and having knowledge of the attack.
Defense attorneys had countered that the case against their clients was based on confessions coerced through torture and lacked hard evidence. Many of them testified they had barely known al-Othmani.
The original trial was often tense, being attended by both the families of victims and the families of the defendants, most of whom are from the poor city of Safi.
After the October verdict, many of the French audience members complained that the two-to-four year sentences were too light.
"The families of the French victims protested against the verdict to the judge, which pushed the royal prosecutor to immediately appeal the convictions," defense attorney Mohammed Sadko told The Associated Press Saturday. "These penalties are scandalous. The royal prosecutor just asked for a confirmation of the (life) sentence against Hakim Dah, but the judge condemned him to death."
Legal experts have often criticized the high conviction rates, often based on flimsy evidence, in Moroccan courts, especially in terrorism-related trials. Defense attorneys were not allowed to call witnesses in the original trial, which was largely based on the confessions obtained by police.
France and Morocco are close allies and the new sentences were announced the same day French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe was visiting.
Morocco has been spared attacks by organized militant groups such as al-Qaida, which has a strong presence in neighboring Algeria. But it is plagued by so-called "lone-wolf" attacks of small cells inspired by extremist ideology.