Morocco court condemns three to death for killing Scandinavian hikers

SALÉ, Morocco (AFP) – Three Islamic State (IS) group supporters were sentenced to death by a court in Morocco over the beheadings of two Scandinavian women on a hiking trip in the High Atlas Mountains.

The defendants had asked for forgiveness during their final statements at a packed courtroom in Sale, near the capital Rabat, following an 11-week trial of 24 suspects.

Alleged ringleader Abdessamad Ejjoud, a 25-year-old street vendor has confessed to orchestrating the attack with two other radicalised Moroccans last December.

He and two others admitted to killing 24-year-old Danish student Louisa Vesterager Jespersen and 28-year-old Norwegian Maren Ueland in murders that shocked the North African country.

Prosecutors and social media users had called for the death penalty for all three, despite Morocco having a de facto freeze on executions since 1993.

Younes Ouaziyad, a 27-year-old carpenter admitted to beheading one of the tourists.

Third alleged assailant 33-year-old Rachid Afatti had admitted to filming the grisly murders on his mobile phone.

The three remained impassive as the sentence was read out.

Journalists had gathered outside the anti-terrorist court ahead of the ruling.

“We expect sentences that match the cruelty of the crime,” lawyer Khaled El Fataoui, speaking for Jespersen’s family, told AFP.

Helle Petersen, her mother, in a letter read out in court last week, said, “The most just thing would be to give these beasts the death penalty they deserve.”

Ueland’s family had declined to take part in the trial.

All three of the men sentenced to death plan to lodge appeals against the “severe” sentences, defence lawyer Hafida Mekessaoui said.

The prosecution has called for jail terms of between 15 years and life for the 21 other defendants on trial since May 2.

The court sentenced Kevin Zoller Guervos to 20 years for joining a “terrorist group”.

The only non-Moroccan in the group, Guervos was accused of having taught the main suspects how to use an encrypted messaging service and to use weapons.

His lawyer, Saad Sahli, said Guervos had cut all ties with the other suspects “once he knew they had extremist ideas” more than 18 months ago.

“This verdict is cruel and unacceptable, we will appeal,” Sahli said, adding that the judges had failed to take into account “proof of his innocence”.

All but three of those on trial had said they were supporters of the IS group, according to the prosecution, although IS itself has never claimed responsibility for the murders.

The three killers of the women were “bloodthirsty monsters”, the prosecution said, pointing out that an autopsy report had found 23 injuries on Jespersen’s decapitated body and seven on that of Ueland.

Ejjoud had confessed at a previous hearing to beheading one of the women and Ouaziyad the other while Afatti filmed.