The London-based rights group found that torture allegations in Morocco resurfaced after the 11 September, 2001 attacks on US targets, when the kingdom began to worry seriously about the possibility of “terrorism” at home.

The allegations prompted Amnesty to send a delegation last month to Morocco, where it studied dozens of cases.

Secret detention

Next week, it will present its findings to the UN Committee against Torture in Geneva. They should make for disturbing reading.

Some suspects said they were held for weeks on end in secret detention, Philip Luther, an Amnesty researcher on North Africa, said.

Some told of being strung up and beaten with metal poles or wooden rods to extract confessions. Others were raped with a bottle or club, he said. In some cases, agents told victims that their wives would be raped if they didn't cooperate.

The North African kingdom has waged a tough “anti-terrorism” crackdown since 16 May when Islamic attackers launched five near-simultaneous human bombings in Casablanca, killing 45 people, including 12 bombers. About 1100 “terrorism” suspects have since been rounded up by a security dragnet.

Morocco, an important US ally in the Arab world, wants to show it is doing its utmost to fight so-called terror. But some observers, both at home and abroad, say the crackdown is trampling on human rights.

Trials are being held at rapid-fire speed, raising doubts about their fairness.

Death penalty revived

Since May, the courts have sentenced more than 50 people to life in prison and 16 people to death. Morocco has not executed anyone since 1993, and it is unclear whether its policy may now change.

"Very often, (suspects)  are convicted based on their statements to police, without material proof of their guilt"

Driss El Yazami,
secretary-general of the International Federation of Human Rights

Moroccan officials say the crackdown is being conducted within the bounds of the law. A new “anti-terrorism” law, which passed just days after the Casablanca attacks, allows terror suspects to be held up to 12 days without being charged, among other measures.

The iron-fisted crackdown is a disappointment for many supporters of King Muhammad VI, the 40-year-old ruler who came to power in 1999 pledging to improve human rights.

Just last month, the king won international praise from feminist quarters for measures to grant women more rights on marriage and divorce.

Luther says the alleged torture victims are so-called suspected 'Islamic militants', but also activists who support independence for Western Sahara, a disputed territory on Africa's Atlantic coast that is claimed by Morocco.

"We have looked into a very disturbing return of what we thought were practices confined to the history books," Luther said.

Protecting 'democracy'

Andre Azoulay, an adviser to the king, says human rights groups raising questions about the crackdown should "go and talk to families" of the Casablanca bombing victims.

"We have to protect our democracy," he told journalists last month.

The International Federation of Human Rights, based in Paris, is also worried about the anti-terrorism law, the allegations of torture and the speed of suspects' trials.

"They're tried in two or three days maximum, with lawyers ... who haven't had time to look at the files," said Driss El Yazami, the group's secretary-general.

"Very often, they're convicted based on their statements to police, without material proof of their guilt."