The Ben Barka affair: 51 years after the events, the truth is still feared
- 02 Nov 2016
At the end of the 1960s, the wrongly named Cold war was in full swing. In the background, the national liberation wars in Vietnam and Mozambique, the anti-apartheid resistance in South Africa, the military coups in Brazil and later in Indonesia… To reverse the tide that was favouring the neocolonial order, three great leaders, Che Guevara, Mehdi Ben Barka and Amílcar Cabral imagined a convergence of struggles at a tricontinental scale. Movements, political parties and even guerrillas from Latin America, Africa and Asia, should exchange their experiences and strategies in resisting against imperialism. These three revolutionaries, thinkers and men of action, paid with their lives for their struggles side-by-side with the « wretched of the Earth ». Half a century after their disappearance, their ideas for a less unequal world remain more relevant than ever. To better understand his father’s struggles, we have interviewed Bachir Ben Barka, who works to uncover all the responsibilities in the « Ben Barka affair ». Interview conducted by Alex Anfruns & Philippe Stroot.
Mr. Ben Barka, 51 years on, what exactly is known about the disappearance of your father, Mehdi Ben Barka, in Paris on October 29th 1965?
Not much. We know that he was stopped by two policemen in front of brasserie Lipp, in boulevard Saint-Germain in Paris, that he went into a service vehicle, that inside this vehicle a French service agent and a mobster were present together with the two policemen. He was taken to a villa in the outskirts of Paris, close to Orly, in Fontenay-le-Vicomte, that belonged to a notorious gangster, and there his trail disappears, nobody knows what happened to him.
Plenty of stories have been told, plenty of theories have been floated, but for us he disappeared on October 29, 1965, in front of brasserie Lipp at half past noon. Obviously we cannot question his death, his assassination, but 50 years later there are still questions to be answered. How was he murdered? Who were the killers? Where is his body?
We do not have a place to gather and mourn. And then there is also the question that interests and troubles us as citizens : have all the responsibilities been established? Some have been. But all the criminal – and even political – responsibilities are yet to be determined. Over the course of 51 years, the goal of our research, undertaken by my family and their lawyer Mr. Butin, has always been to uncover the truth about the death of my father.
Who would be interested in getting rid of the internationalist militant that he was?
Your question already has the answer. Because he was an internationalist militant, he troubled certain interests. What we know is that the main political decision to arrange for his disappearance came from the very highest levels of the Moroccan state. The execution of this plan was charged to interior minister Oufkir, to the head of the national security agency Dlimi and his agents.
The convergence of parties interested in Mehdi Ben Barka’s disappearance is illustrated by the collaborations that were requested in order to make him disappear. The French secret service, the Israeli secret service, as well as, with no doubt whatsoever, the United States secret service, in one way or another played their part in organizing the trap in which my father fell, causing him to be kidnapped and disappeared.
When commenting on the disappearance of Ben Barka, General de Gaulle said: «Nothing, absolutely nothing, suggests that intelligence services and the police had any knowledge of this operation, let alone that they were part of a cover-up ». Was this dishonest from General de Gaulle ?
In these words there is plenty of dishonesty, a lot of comedy, but mainly a desire to protect the state. De Gaulle became aware of the magnitude of this scandal, the extent of the dysfunction that was plaguing the secret service and certain levers of the French state, which allowed a foreign secret service, Moroccan in this case, to carry out such a crime in French soil.
This same dysfunction favoured the protection and the flight of the criminals. We are certain that de Gaulle was confronted with a fait accompli. In that weekend at the end of October in 1965, my father expected to meet with people close to de Gaulle, if not de Gaulle himself, since he was interested in the Tricontinental alliance that was establishing itself at the time, given that he also wanted some autonomy with regard to the United States.
He was thus confronted with a done deed and my father’s disappearance showed the extent of the problems that de Gaulle himself faced within his regime, as well as within his secret service, the police and even his close political collaborators. At some point it was said that the French interior minister at the time, Roger Frey, was aware of the plotting towards my father’s disappearance. He was very close to general Oufkir and spent his family holidays in Morocco with him.
But all the inquiries and investigations that were conducted afterwards, from the research carried out by journalists and historians to the judicial investigations, proved that this case was anything but « common and menial », as de Gaulle said. The implications and responsibilities, both French and Moroccan, as well as Israeli and American, were all at a very high level, unlike what General de Gaulle would have you believe. Unfortunately, after this statement, the weight of the « national interest » was imposed on the judicial process.
Today, 51 years after the fact, there is still an open investigation in France and the « Ben Barka affair » case is the oldest open case in the High Court of Paris ; we are now on the tenth judge working this case. The inability to establish the truth is essentially due to reasons of national interest ; in this case « interests » should be plural since it is the Moroccan, French, American and Israeli states that are stopping justice from taking its course.
There is material evidence to uncover the truth about my father’s disappearance, some witnesses are still alive. And when I call them witnesses I am being generous, as they are perpetrators, mostly Moroccan agents, whose identity is known and it is known that they were in Paris. Some have been found guilty of kidnapping by French courts. They know a great deal of the truth.
There are also cases in the secret services, but they remain confidential as « defence secrets ». This concerns French secret service documents, as well as Israeli and American.
One also talks about the location where my father’s body, or at least part of it, may have been buried, in the outskirts of Rabat, some dozens of metres away from the new United States embassy. But the Moroccan authorities refuse to dig and search this place.
Therefore the elements to get to the truth exist, both in material and documented forms ; so it is possible to figure out what happened. But 50 years after the events, the truth is still feared. None of these states is willing to take responsibility for their actions, or admit to the excesses committed by their services in this murder, which was a state-sponsored crime.
You have said that the court case remains open, but is actively being pursued or is it more of a formal procedure?
This depends on the judges and the times. There are judges that are more active than others, that really want the case to progress, and others that have done nothing. The current judge has been active but he has been blocked by the opposition from these countries. For example, when the French judge sent a request to interrogate the Moroccan witnesses, he was told that the authorities did not know the address of the chief of the Moroccan gendarmerie …
When the judge demands that excavations take place at a certain location, the Moroccan authorities reply that they have no knowledge of this place, even though it had been filmed. After this the surrounding wall was raised by two meters to stop anyone else from filming again, but there are still satellite pictures… This place remains in the state it was left 10, 20 or 30 years ago. It was a secret detention facility that was called PF3 (Fixed Point 3), where opponents of the regime were kidnapped and some even killed, according to eye witnesses. The Moroccan authorities refuse to allow any excavations to take place.
To this day the French defence ministry refuses to lift the classified status of dozens of documents related to my father and this case. Therefore, despite the goodwill of the judges, one ends up running against a wall due to political decisions, or rather a lack of courage to take the political position of unlocking this case. And we wonder who remains fearful of this case in order for the truth to remain hidden.
Photo of Brasserie Lipp, with a plaque remembering Mehdi Ben Barka’s disappearance
You have mentioned investigative journalism. Do you believe that the press has really contributed in the search for the truth in this case ?
Yes and no. Yes, because there has always been interest in the case, in the mystery of an unsolved 50-year old case, the mystery of a crime with no body. Each time a new element emerges, the press amplifies it and tries to go further.
But at the same time, the press has always been a source of distraction. The first example that comes to mind is the big front-page headline of the weekly newspaper l’Express, in 1966, which read in large print « I saw Ben Barka get killed, witness says ». And in fact, once one reads the article, one realises that this alleged witness that has spoken is not the person being interviewed and that the person who supposedly witnessed such events could not have been in the place where these events took place. And this famous witness was Georges Figon, one of the gangsters implicated in my father’s disappearance, who was later found after « committing suicide », according to the official story, just as the police was about to arrest him three months after the events.
We know now that this headline, which had no connection to the content of the article, was a complete fabrication by Jean-Jacques Servan-Schreiber, head of l’Express at the time, and this resulted in a huge increase in circulation. And unfortunately the theory developed in this would-be interviewed was a basis for a lot of hypotheses about my father’s disappearance.
This is why I’ve said that the press has helped us a lot, because thanks to the press the case was not buried and it is often talked about, but on occasion the press was also used, I wouldn’t say manipulated, but used as an instrument to push through false evidence.
The other example that comes to my mind are the declarations of Boukhari, an old Moroccan agent, some fifteen years ago, who also made some « bombshell revelations » to Le Monde and a Moroccan weekly newspaper, Le Journal de Casablanca, where he revealed that my father’s body had been repatriated to Morocco and dissolved in a tank of acid. He placed all the responsibility on Oufkir and Dlimi, completely ignoring the ultimate commander, in this case the king of Morocco.
Also in this case of the famous Boukhari « revelations », where later it was shown that he himself had been used and always refused to testify in front of a French judge, they just ended up diverting the public’s attention in the wrong direction. The conclusions that are meant to be extracted both from Figon’s and Boukhari’s testimonies are : first, that Oufkir and Dlimi are the ones responsible for my father’s death ; and second, that the body as disappeared.
What this means to say is that there is nothing left to investigate. Oufkir and Dlimi died in very troubling circumstances, the former with two bullets in the back during a coup attempt against king Hassan II of Morocco, the latter in car accident, having collided with a military truck right after leaving the royal palace. With the two key-players of Moroccan security out of the picture, there is nothing left to do but to close the case…
You have clearly been very active in searching for the truth of what happened to your father. On a more personal level, what traits have you inherited from Mehdi Ben Barka ? Do you feel like continuing his political struggle ?
At the moment I don’t think anyone has the stature to continue his political struggle. What I try to do is to lead the fight for his memory, so that it does not disappear with him. They have disappeared him physically and for many years they tried to erase his name from the Moroccan collective memory, but to no avail. His name remains ever-present. His ideas are ever-present even for a Moroccan youth that never got to meet him. Everything he proposed and defended about Morocco and elsewhere remains relevant to this day.
Naturally, 51 years have passed, some ideas need to be updated, but everyone who has read his works concerning the 60s, the decolonisation period, the reconstruction of newly independent countries, the risks and pitfalls of neocolonialism, the struggle for international solidarity, the building of new societies, democracy at the grassroots level, etc, has pointed out how his proposals remain guiding lights for the youth of today, which has him as a reference. If I manage to perpetuate this memory and ensure it is available for the new generations, that in itself will have been a great job done to defend this memory and ensure that his ideas are taken on by others.
Returning briefly to the geopolitical context of the time, we recall that in October 1963, king Hassan II of Morocco declared the « sand war » against Algeria. It was said that Mehdi Ben Barka supported Algeria against his own country, Morocco. Is it true that, to this day, some people label this act as treason ?
Allow me to make a correction : you have said that he supported Algeria against his own country ; what he did was condemn the war. He was against this war, which he labelled as an act of aggression against the young Algerian Revolution, which had become a reference for liberation movements in Africa and Latin America. It is true that this was a act of support towards Algeria and condemnation, not of his country, but of a regime that undertook this act of aggression in order to weaken Algeria.
It is true, even today, many people do not understand this position, but to him this was something central to all his struggle. A struggle to be carried beyond borders. Because he had had the chance of broadening his political views. He attended university in Algeria, where he completed a degree in Mathematics in the University of Algiers between 1940 and 1942. When he was going to France to pursue his university studies, France was occupied. So he studied in Algiers ; afterwards he returned to Morocco in 1943 to pursue his struggle for Moroccan independence.
During his stay in Algeria, he made contact with future North African leaders – Tunisians and Algerians – but he also participated in the debates that took place in Algiers, notably about the anti-fascist struggle. This question was debated at a certain point amongst the peoples in the French colonies : should we support nazi Germany, which is fighting France, or should we fight against nazism ?
For the majority of intellectuals and political militants in Algiers at the time, the struggle against fascism and nazism was the priority. It was not a matter of the enemies of our enemies being our friends… The political reasoning is not exact like mathematical logic. He participated in this debate that established that they should fight against fascism but, of course, not forgetting the independence struggle of the three Maghreb peoples (Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria).
The connections my father made in 1942-43 were further developed later between the leaders of the FNL in Algeria, the Néo-Destour party in Tunisia and the Istiqlal party in Morocco. This internationalist outlook always guided his political vision from this point on. Of course, each people has its own characteristics, each country has to follow its own path, but it is due to the solidarity among them that the different peoples can move forward together. And my father never abandoned the idea of creating this effective solidarity, not only at the level of North Africa, but at the level of the whole continent, and much later, of the Tricontinental.
After its independence, Morocco has had a succession of kings. They have all been characterized by either a « closed openness » or an « open closedness » of the kingdom, we have often heard. Did the murder of Mehdi Ben Barka seal the fate of the democratic opening of Morocco ?
I think the hope had been long dead. It is true that in the aftermath of the independence, with the euphoria that followed, there was a dynamic generated by this young generation of militants that were Mehdi Ben Barka, Boabid, Basri, who had come from the popular classes and were militants in the Istiqlal party and sometimes also in the armed resistance against France…
After the independence this generation wanted to build a new Morocco, with the demand for a Constituent Assembly, with the mobilization of the popular energy, while trying not to fall into the trap of neocolonialism. This generation took on this struggle so that the independence could have a social and progressive content.
Precisely, how has the correlation of forces evolved ?
At the time of independence, the correlation of forces was such that it was possible to reach a compromise with the Royal Palace in order to enact a series of reforms and actions which were in line with the building of a new society. But little by little, this correlation of forces was reversed, and by end of the 1950s there had been a weakening of this new force that had emerged and a strong recovery by the royal forces, thanks to political and strategical alliances between the Moroccan feudal lords and the neocolonial and imperial interests, particularly French.
The weakening of the popular movement was due to the repression, as well as certain internal problems, a lack of organization, which meant that by the end of the 50s, and especially after the reign of Hassan II in 1961, there was a complete break between the Royal Palace and the progressive political forces in Morocco. And, more than a break, we witnessed a brutal attempt to eliminate these progressive forces by any means and essentially by repression.
When we talk about the “years of lead” in Morocco, they did not start in 1970, but during the 60s. In this moment, the hopes for a Constituent Assembly vanished. Mohamed V had pledged to establish an Assembly to draft a constitution for a democratic, constitutional monarchy, but in 1962 Hassan II, his successor, imposed a constitution tailored to his will which was not at all in the original vein.
The years of lead really start at this point, with the waves of repression, the disappearances, the political trials and eliminations. Of course the assassination of my father was the most symbolic, the most symptomatic, example.
Have you appealed to international instances with regard to his disappearance ?
Not yet, because the investigation of his case is still ongoing in France. We have been encouraged to reach out to the European Court of Human Rights, but we are still waiting. Since the case remains open in France, this means we have yet to exhaust all the legal means in France. On the other hand, we are considering appealing to the United Nations body that handles disappearances (Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances) which is extremely competent in handling this kind of problems. On occasion of the 50th anniversary of the events, a new committee for the truth was created in 2015, after the first committee that was created in 1965. It is headed by Louis Joinet, a lawyer who was also the writer of the charter of the Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances.
What would your father think, in your opinion, about current events taking place in North Africa and the Middle East?
The context is different. The hope that existed from 1954-55 and lasted until 1958 is due to the famous conference in Tangier that had gathered the three leading parties in the Maghreb, the Néo-Destour, the FLN and the Istiqlal, which had a maghrébine vision, worked with this perspective, were aware of the problem of neocolonialism, and worked with the vision of building a Maghreb of the peoples.
This outlook is no longer on the agenda today. Since the end of the 1960s, it was the Maghreb of the states that imposed itself, the Maghreb of the polices with a series of operations where there was much more solidarity among police and security forces of the three, four or five Maghreb countries, than a political will for liberation and progress.
That’s why it is tricky to make parallels with current events. The problem we are facing today is not the same one that existed in the 1960s. It was recognized that all disputes would be settled on the basis of political and economic cooperation among Maghreb countries. The problem is completely different. This is why it is very difficult to say what my father would have thought these days.
What we can say for sure is that today, 50 years on, the state of the Maghreb, of the Middle East and of Africa, would be different if people like Mehdi Ben Barka, Amílcar Cabral, Lumumba, Che Guevara were still alive. These assassinations did not happen by chance. I am not suggesting a « conspiracy », but it is undeniable that a certain few selective murders targeted figures that were major catalysts for the action of their peoples and their regions.
With these disappearances, a several projects were unsuccessful. For example, the vision of the Tricontinental Conference was a great hope for the peoples of the three continents. It is undeniable that with the disappearance of Mehdi Ben Barka, with the isolation of Che Guevara in Africa, with the coup d’etat that overthrew Ahmed Ben Bella in Algeria, the Tricontinental perspectives changed completely, and what had been envisioned could not be brought to fruition.
We should not forget the coup d’etat in Indonesia and the six million killed. A number of leaders were eliminated in key moments were there was a chance that the correlation of forces would swing in favour of progressive forces.
Among the various origins of members of Daesh, it seems that Morocco is well represented. What are your thoughts on this ?
The situation in Morocco is special, it is a situation of prioritized security. One of the effects of this is that it stops information from going out. We do not know everything that is going on in Morocco : human rights organizations have echoed a series of increasingly important and serious violations, in the realm of information, as well as concerning lawyers, and social movements.
It is not a secret that social movements are being oppressed, but we do not talk about it. There is some complacency from certain western media outlets with regard to the Moroccan regime, which explains why the information does not spread. And with the current correlation of forces, it could be that the Moroccan regime will play a key role in this strategy against the rise of islamist forces in the region, together with what has been happening in Europe.
But I believe that Morocco, similarly to other Mediterranean countries, is full of « criminal-islamist » temptations – the word jihadist is not accurate. And, unfortunately, the youth in Morocco cannot escape this reality. One should establish a connection between the evolution of the economic and democratic situation in Morocco and the development of an ideology which is backward, reactionary, obscurantist…
There is a parallel to be made and Morocco cannot escape it. 60 years after its independence, even according to official statistics, Morocco has yet to build healthcare, education and social security systems worthy of such a name. Morocco is bringing up the rear in terms of the human development index. And I believe this situation also explains why Morocco has not staved off the development of fundamentalist groups.
Can you tell us about the activities undertaken by the Mehdi Ben Barka Institute ?
Some fifteen years ago we created the Mehdi Ben Barka Institute – Living Memory, which has a 1901 association status in France, with the goal of precisely making my father’s thought widely known through all possible means : cultural activities, publications, conferences… The first action of the Institute was to rewrite his works, regrouping all those which had been published in a scattered fashion : some of them by François Maspero in 1966, others in Arabic, etc.
We have thus gathered everything in a book published by Editions Syllepse : « Ecrits de Mehdi Ben Barka »(« Writings of Mehdi Ben Barka »). The activity of the Institute should be seen through this lens of working with memory, but also of historical and investigative work, through the organization and participation in conferences and colloquia.
For example, in 2005 there was a colloquium in Paris about the transition between the Tricontinental conference and alter-globalization, and the works resulted in a publication by Syllepse : « Mehdi Ben Barka en héritage – De la Tricontinentale à l’altermondialisme » (« The legacy of Mehdi Ben Barka – from the Tricontinental to alter-globalization »). Following that, in the collection « Pensée d’hier pour demain » (« Ideas from yesterday for tomorrow ») published by CETIM (Centre Europe-Tiers Monde), a book was dedicated to « Mehdi Ben Barka ». Finally, the publisher Les petits matins, in the collection « sortir du colonialisme » (« Out of Colonialism »), published a book called « Mehdi Ben Barka, cinquante ans après » (« Mehdi Ben Barka, 50 years later »).
But defending the memory of Mehdi Ben Barka is not just a matter of publishing his writings. We have also organized cultural events : there were two major exhibits on occasion of the 40th anniversary of his disappearance, one in France in 2007, the other in Morocco in 2008. In Paris, 41 artists of different nationalities all contributed with artwork. Later, in Rabat, artists from Morocco, Spain, Palestine, France, participated in another exhibit that lasted almost a month.
The activity of the Institute also consists of collaborations with other organizations and events centred around the the ideas and actions of Mehdi Ben Barka, like the one dedicated to the Tricontinental Conference we did in Geneva.
In your opinion, what should we retain from his ideas in order to understand current events, 51 years later ?
On what concerns the development of Morocco, he tried to mobilise the popular potential that existed in the country. In multiple occasions he showed that it was possible to organize and carry out large-scale actions in the local context of Morocco.
And there is also the task that was singled out from the framework of his international action : when we speak of solidarity, it can only be carried out together with the popular potential of each country, especially to stretch our enemies’ forces: when Che Guevara wrote that « we need to create two, or three Vietnams », this is what he meant.
Creating a solidarity organization across three continents means organizing struggles everywhere in order to weaken our main enemy. What my father did was to mobilize the youth, but, at the same time, sharing the possibilities of each country to revert the correlation of forces in its favour.
Translation : Ricardo Vaz, Investig’Action
Further reading : La Tricontinentale. Les peuples du tiers-monde à l’assaut du ciel, by Said Bouamama (in French, October 2016, Editions CETIM)