“We must speak out against this abuse and show concern and compassion for each other and not chase after positions and worldly gains.”
“My wife is heavily pregnant and I cannot bear to think of what the future may hold for them.”
Sentenced to 8 years in prison following a Moroccan arrest warrant based on torture “evidence”, and separated from his 10 month old daughter, Rachid Ait el Hadj successfully rebuilt his life after his release. Now, 12 years after his arrest he has been stripped of his citizenship and is facing an imminent extradition to Morocco where he is at risk of torture.
This all began following the attacks in France, when the government began proceedings to remove the citizenship of all those accused of terrorism. This policy was later dropped but Rachid Ait el Hadj and his co accused Redouane Aberbri have been stripped of theirs – even though their trial on terrorism charges fell short of due process.
At the moment, they have exhausted all legal means to bring a stop to the extradition. CAGE conducted this interview with Rachid to learn more about his story and encourage others to speak out against the extradition.
CAGE: Salam Rachid, please tell us about your background.
RH: Walaikum Assalam. My name is Rachid Ait el Hadj. I was born in Morocco in 1975 in the city of Aqadir. When I was three years old, I moved to France with my family and that’s where I grew up. France is my home. I have lived, studied and worked here.
In my early twenties I wanted to learn more about my faith, the Arabic language and explore the world. I travelled to Syria, which was known for Islamic knowledge and also to Afghanistan. This was in 1998, a time of relative peace in Afghanistan. The stories that I heard about the country intrigued me and I was taken by my sense of exploration.
After six months I returned to France and resumed my normal life until I was arrested suddenly in 2004 along with a number of others.
CAGE: On what grounds were you arrested?
RH: I was arrested because of a Moroccan arrest warrant, which accused me of being connected to the 2003 Casablanca bombings. I later learned that this arrest warrant was based on the testimony of man, Noureddine Nafia, who was seriously mistreated in Morocco. The “evidence” he gave against me happened as a result of his torture.
Aside from the fact that the “evidence” against me was manufactured, Noureddine was arrested in Mauritania in 2002, well before the Casablanca bombings. I was shocked that the French authorities would use such “evidence” to arrest one of their own citizens.
Strangely, I was then charged with criminal association purely because I had met some individuals during my travels years before. My case had absolutely no connection with the Casablanca bombings and the bombings were not mentioned during the trial.
CAGE: How would you describe your treatment during your imprisonment?
RH: I did not experience any physical mistreatment, however we were always singled out and treated in a derogatory manner. We would be lied to, verbally humiliated and prevented from engaging in any activity.
We were deemed a risk to the prison general population so we were isolated from them most of the time. This meant most of the time we couldn’t work or attend the library to read. We were under constant surveillance. The Corsica terrorists were treated more favourably than us.
This was a difficult experience because none of us who had been arrested in connection with the case had stolen or killed or engaged in any sort of violence. We wanted to appeal but given the atmosphere following the 9/11 attacks we feared that our sentences would be increased.
I was sentenced to 8 years but only spent 6 of it in prison. Redouane Aberbri, who is also at imminent risk of extradition, spent a similar time in prison.
CAGE: Since your release in 2009 what did you get up to?
RH: On a personal level I reconnected with my family. My daughter who I had left as a 10 month old baby was now 7 years old. I had missed most of her early years in prison based on a law heavily criticised by human rights groups.
Anyway, thereafter I had to find work to provide for my family, so I worked at a restaurant then in an office, then I moved to a Hajj and Umrah travel agency. During this period I had no problems with the law. As far as I was concerned I had turned a new leaf in my life.
CAGE: How did you end up at risk of extradition to Morocco?
RH: In 2015 and following the terrorist attacks in France the government needed to be seen to be doing something. In an otherwise normal day, five of us – all of us were co-defendants in the case in 2004 – received a letter from the Interior Ministry informing us that our citizenships were to be removed.
They were acting on proposals that the government should remove the citizenships of all those ever accused of ‘terrorism’. No reasons were given to us and it seemed quite vindictive.
Of the five, only two of us (Redouane and I) risk imminent extradition. On Thursday (20 October 2016), we had the last of a series of appeals to stop the extradition.
The state used a piece of evidence known as a blank paper. Essentially it’s a brief from the security services that we cannot question. At times these briefs have been found to be unreliable but they are still used in the courts. They attempted to link us to the terror attacks in France, claims our legal representative refuted had no basis.
On Friday (21 October 2016) we were informed of the court’s decision: unfortunately they rejected our appeal. It was extremely disheartening for my family and myself. My wife is heavily pregnant with our sixth child and I cannot bear to think of what the future may hold for them.
The European courts are my last resort, but I am concerned because the French government has previously rushed the process in order to circumvent the European courts.
CAGE: How do you feel about this final judgement?
RH: This is oppression. We have done nothing. We’ve served our sentences and started a completely new life. The French authorities are using the heightened security situation as an excuse to remove citizenship and deport French nationals. I am married and have children and grew up in this country.
I have no links to the country of my origin, Morocco. The last time I visited it was on 2000. I am worried that if I am deported to Morocco I may experience injustice and have torture evidence used against me. Even worse I fear for my own personal safety as a person of interest in relation to terrorism cases in Morocco.
CAGE: Do you have any words of advice you would like to give to the Muslim community in France?
RH: We must unite against the oppression in France that is being done in the name of combatting terrorism. Racism and animosity towards Muslims now is rife and it continues to escalate. It is as though we are expected to hide our faith.
We must speak out against this abuse and show concern and compassion for each other and not chase after positions and worldly gains.
Join our campaign online and tweet at French Ministry of Interior to #ٍStopTheExtradition of RACHID AIT EL HADJ and REDOUANE ABERBRI
(NOTE: CAGE represents cases of individuals based on the remit of our work. Supporting a case does not mean we agree with the views or actions of the individual. Content published on CAGE may not reflect the official position of our organisation.)