Moroccan hometown of 'gang-raped teen' divided over case

Ismail Bellaouali
Moroccan teenager Khadija Okkarou, pictured August 21, 2018, with her face blurred, says in an online video that members of a "dangerous gang" in her town kidnapped and held her prisoner for two months, raping and torturing her

The hometown of a Moroccan teenager who says she was kidnapped and gang raped is divided over her account of a case that has sparked outrage across the kingdom.

In a video posted online last week, 17-year-old Khadija Okkarou said members of a "dangerous gang" in her town had kidnapped and held her prisoner for two months, raping and torturing her.

But residents in the one-road town of Oulad Ayyad in rural central Morocco are split over what happened and why.

"Her testimony has generated a lot of compassion here, but some question her version of events," said a man in his 50s who asked to remain anonymous.

According to a neighbour, the young girl has tried to "keep out of sight" in the town, now abuzz over her video testimony.

In the video, she shows horrific scars allegedly from cigarette burns and rudimentary tattoos carved into parts of her body.

It has sparked a wave of solidarity on social media -- one petition has collected more than 70,000 signatures -- and demonstrations of support in her town.

But it's also brought out detractors.

- 'Arrangement' -

"This girl kept bad company... we saw her going out with boys," said Ahmed, who runs a grocery shop near Khadija's home.

According to him, relatives of some of the men she accused "had proposed an arrangement and her father was ready to accept" until associations backing the girl's testimony intervened.

On a recent busy market day, the few women seen in the town were all wearing headscarves and the traditional djellaba robes.

"It's a conservative region," said Mustafa, a truck driver sipping tea at one of the town's men-only cafes.

Here, as in many rural areas in Morocco, girls stay home, marry young and do not associate with boys.

Oulad Ayyad, which makes most of its money selling sweet beets and sugar, is part of the country's poorest region.

Young people have little access to education and services, according to a recent study published by Morocco's statistics institute.

Like many girls her age, Khadija left school when she was 12 because her family was too poor to pay the costs, residents told AFP.

"(She) was a bit free, her father allowed her to leave the house and lead her life as she wanted," said Mustafa, who claimed to know the family well.

"This is not the case for most girls here," he added.

Hassan, a coffee shop owner, said most of the town was "upset" over what happened to Khadija.

"Most people have compassion for her because it can happen to anyone."

- 'Machismo culture' -

Moroccan police have arrested 12 people -- aged from 18 to 28 -- over the case, with charges ranging from "trafficking a minor" to "rape", according to a judicial source.

Other charges include "torture and the use of a weapon to inflict injuries and psychological damage" and "forming an armed gang".

Some of the detainees have admitted to the charges, according to Ibrahim Hachane, Khadija's lawer.

But their admissions have failed to convince the teenager's detractors.

"Unfortunately, the machismo culture makes some people blame her for what happened to her," said Hachane, a member of Morocco's Association for Human Rights.

Parents of some of the accused have accused the young girl of "lying" and living promiscuously.

Dr. Abdenbi Halmaoui, who has accompanied Khadija throughout her various medical examinations, said she has been "badly" affected by those who have questioned her testimony.

He has advised her family to take away her cellphone to prevent detractors from reaching her.

"She must receive psychiatric support because even though she is stable, she is disturbed," Halmaoui told AFP.