Scandinavian hikers murder trial begins in Morocco

Image source, AFP / Facebook
Image caption,
Maren Ueland, left, and Louisa Vesterager Jespersen were found dead in a popular tourist area

Twenty-four people have gone on trial in Morocco over the killing of two Scandinavian tourists in December.

The bodies of Louisa Vesterager Jespersen, 24, from Denmark, and Maren Ueland, 28, from Norway, were found beheaded in the High Atlas mountains.

The defendants are facing charges including forming a terrorist cell.

Three of them are accused of pledging allegiance to the Islamic State group and carrying out the killings. They face the death penalty.

The defendants appeared at a court in Salé, in north-western Morocco, on Thursday. The trial was then adjourned until later this month.

Morocco has had a moratorium on executions since 1993, but death sentences are still occasionally handed down. There have been online petitions calling for anyone convicted of the killings to be executed.

The families of the victims and their lawyers will not attend the trial, according to AFP news agency.

What do we know about the case?

The bodies were found in an isolated area near a popular tourist spot in Morocco's High Atlas mountains on 17 December.

A video appearing to show the beheading of one of the women was shared widely on social media by IS supporters.

Police in Norway have said that video is almost certainly real. In Denmark, charges have been brought against 14 people suspected of sharing the footage.

Image source, AFP
Image caption,
Rachid Afatti (L), Younes Ouaziyad (C), and Abdessamad Ejjoud, three of the main suspects

Police said the main suspects had pledged allegiance to IS, although they do not believe there was any contact made with jihadist groups in Syria or Iraq.

Investigators suspect Abdessamad Ejjoud, a 25-year-old street vendor, was the group's ringleader, the AFP news agency reported.

Younes Ouaziyad, 27, and Rachid Afatti, 33, are also accused of taking part in the murder, agency reports said. Other defendants are said to be facing trial over alleged links to the suspects.

A dual Swiss-Spanish national, Kevin Zoller Guervos, was reported to be among those due to appear in court. He was detained last year in Marrakesh for allegedly trying to recruit Moroccans to carry out terrorist plots.

Last month, another Swiss national was tried separately and sentenced to 10 years in prison on a number of charges, including forming a terrorist group.

Who were the victims?

Ms Jespersen and Ms Ueland had been studying outdoor activities at the University of Southeastern Norway. They reportedly shared an apartment and were training to be guides.

Image source, AFP
Image caption,
The victims' bodies were found in an isolated area in Morocco's High Atlas mountains

They had arrived on a month-long holiday in Morocco on 9 December and travelled to the foothills of Mount Toubkal, North Africa's highest peak, 10km (6 miles) from Imlil.

Their bodies were found in their tent.

Both women had taken full precautions ahead of their trip, Ms Ueland's mother said last year.