Morocco shaken by harrowing account of tortured teen

A lawyer for a 17-year-old Moroccan girl who told police she was gang-raped, forcibly tattooed and held against her will for two months says authorities have arrested 14 suspects in a case that's sparking fresh public outcry over women's rights and sexual abuse in the North African kingdom.

The Moroccan government has so far declined to comment on the girl's harrowing account. Local police confirmed to The Associated Press that there have been arrests in the case, but wouldn't say how many or give details.

Ibrahim Hashane, a member of a group of volunteer lawyers who are pressing her case, said an examining judge has ordered investigations into allegations of kidnapping, rape and abuse. He said 14 suspects are in custody, and that the judge has scheduled a first hearing in the case for next week.

In an online video interview with Morocco's Chouf TV posted last week, the girl alleged that her kidnappers "would assault me one by one," burned her and didn't feed her or let her shower. She appeared to have scars from cigarette burns on her hands.

"They tattooed my arms, I don't remember the day they tattooed me 'cause when I woke up in the morning I found that my arms were swollen and they hurt me," said the girl, who was identified by local media only as Khadija. The Associated Press does not generally identify victims of sexual assault. "It was terrible. I cried but no one cared. They have no compassion."

The girl alleged that two men kidnapped her at knife-point when she was visiting her aunt during the May-June holy month of Ramadan, before selling her to other men in exchange for money or drugs. She said her captors gave her drugs that knocked her out for days at a time.

The case has dominated Moroccan news media for days, and more than 27,000 people have signed an online petition voicing indignation. Lawyers, activists and her parents are now raising funds to press her case and for medical treatment.

Abdelwahed Saadi, a social worker and neighbor of the girl's family in the central Morocco town of Oulad Ayad, said her father reported her missing but authorities did not launch an investigation.

"They are simple people. The father is sick and couldn't do much to help free his daughter. Where we live is a crime and drug hotspot. No one can do much when houses are assaulted, people robbed in the light of day, drugs are used up and crime is committed," he said in a telephone interview. "She is first and foremost a victim of a dysfunctional environment. So are the attackers."

The teenager said she attempted to flee from her abusers several times but in vain. Eventually, she said her father managed to speak by phone to one of the alleged kidnappers and convinced him to free her by saying he wouldn't file a police complaint. Once freed, however, the girl notified authorities herself.

Houcine Harshi, president of the Moroccan Association for the Defense of Human Rights, cautioned that the girl's account must be viewed with some skepticism.

In a phone interview, he alleged that the girl was known in the town for associating herself with drug users.

A mother of two of the alleged kidnappers told Sultana, a women's news website, that the girl fled home with her parents' knowledge and often came to her house to see her two sons now in custody. The mother said they repeatedly chased the girl away.

Saadi, the social worker, said no circumstances could excuse the girl's alleged rape.

"This girl is a minor. She says she has been abused and raped. Her words must be taken seriously," he said.

Violence against Moroccan women remains widespread and a largely taboo subject in a country that is seen as a haven of moderate Islam and relative prosperity in North Africa.

In February, parliament passed a long-sought law on combating violence against women, recognizing some forms of abuse for the first time and criminalizing some forms of domestic violence. But critics say it didn't go nearly far enough.

A survey by U.N. Women, a United Nations agency for the empowerment of women, carried out in Rabat, the Moroccan capital, and in some neighboring cities found that 41 percent of the men surveyed believe that financial support justifies marital rape.

Over 50 percent reported having been emotionally abusive to their wives, and 15 percent acknowledged using physical violence against women.

The survey, conducted in 2016 and released in February, found that 62 percent of the men interviewed believe women must tolerate violence in order to preserve family unity. The study questioned 2,400 men and women in person over three months. No margin of error was given.

Concern about sexual violence gained momentum last year when video footage circulated online of boys on a bus ripping the clothes off a girl and groping her breasts, among other abuse. Neither the passengers nor the bus driver intervened.