44-year French Probe Into Disappearance Resurfaces

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Unsolved for 44 years, a case into the disappearance of a prominent Moroccan exile kidnapped off a Paris sidewalk has resurfaced _ and now is posing uncomfortable questions for France's leadership.

The oft-hobbled investigation into the fate of Mehdi Ben Barka was supposed to take big step forward this month after international arrest warrants were issued for four suspects _ including the current chief of Morocco's police force.

But French prosecutors abruptly suspended the warrants a day later. Ben Barka's son and the only surviving lawyer in the case claim connivance at the highest levels in France and Morocco for the suspension and for keeping the case a mystery all these years.

"The same complicity by which my father disappeared in Paris, this complicity continues to stop justice from doing its work," Bachir Ben Barka said on France-Info radio. "Truth always frightens."

The wheels of justice have turned in fits and starts under six French presidents since Ben Barka was kidnapped on Oct. 29, 1965. The case has all the ingredients of a thriller, with gangsters, cops, double agents and seamy operatives allegedly working on behalf of a Moroccan king and the complicit French state.

Ben Barka was a central figure in anti-colonialist movements, making him a potential enemy to numerous powers, and he had been sentenced to death in absentia in Morocco. However, the intrigue surrounding his disappearance has overshadowed the man himself, touching on the close ties between France and its former protectorate of Morocco, which gained independence in 1956.

An exile living in Geneva, Ben Barka was lured to Paris by French police. Waiting in broad daylight for a supposed rendezvous on the Boulevard Saint-Germain, he was snatched by the officers, put into a Peugeot and whisked away. He was never seen again.

On Oct. 1, French judicial officials announced that Interpol was putting four Moroccans on its most-wanted list based on the French warrants, including Morocco's current police chief, Gen. Hosni Benslimane. The warrants also named former Moroccan counterespionage chief Abdelkader Kadiri, secret service agent Abdelkak Achaachi and a suspected member of the kidnap operation, Mioud Tounsi, alias Larbi Chtouki.

The next day, the Paris prosecutor's office unexpectedly ordered the French warrants suspended, saying they needed more time to obtain details it said were requested by Interpol. Interpol has refused all comment on the case.

French media have given extensive coverage to the suspension of the warrants, with newspapers and airwaves buzzing over Ben Barka's disappearance as though it had happened just yesterday.

Lawyer Maurice Buttin, now 81, claims that President Nicolas Sarkozy's office is behind the delay, calling it "the scandal of scandals." Judicial affairs are never discussed by the presidency and Sarkozy has not spoken publicly about the case.

The disappearance was investigated in apparent earnestness under then-President Charles de Gaulle. In 1967, two French police officers were convicted and sentenced to eight and six years in prison for their roles in the kidnapping. Also convicted were four French gangsters, one of whom owned a villa south of Paris.

But there has never been a body, or solid evidence about who was behind the plot.

By most accounts, a high-ranking Moroccan general ordered Ben Barka snuffed out on behalf of Moroccan King Hassan II. The late Gen. Mohamed Oufkir himself disappeared after leading a failed military putsch in 1971.

According to one account by a former Moroccan intelligence official, Oufkir and an assistant tortured Ben Barka to death, then the mutilated body was returned to Morocco and dissolved in a tank of acid.

Another account claims Ben Barka's body was put in a cement block to conceal it.

Sunday brought yet another version. A former member of the French Navy's special forces, George Fleury, told Le Journal du Dimanche that he has documents claiming Ben Barka's body was incinerated and the ashes buried on the grounds of a villa south of Paris.

Investigators have hit snag after snag in both countries.

Morocco has refused to heed a formal 2003 judicial request by French investigators to question a handful of people.

In 2004, France removed the seal on secret documents pertaining to the case. In 2007, France's Justice Ministry readied international arrests warrants for Moroccan suspects _ but they were never delivered.

Buttin is convinced that King Hassan II, who died in 1999, was behind Ben Barka's kidnapping.

Moroccans, he said, "don't want to call Hassan II into question ... to protect the sacred character of their king."

The monarch _ who had dismissed the case as a strictly French affair _ ruled with an iron grip over a country that saw hundreds of disappearances under his reign.

His son, Mohammed VI, initiated an effort to purge the kingdom of its ghosts. Ben Barka's exiled family was allowed to return home and accounts of Ben Barka's disappearance emerged in the freer climate, but still, the case has not been solved.

"It's 44 years that I've been optimistic," Buttin said. "I think the truth will come out one day, I hope before I die."

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