For years, the 700 residents of the Ain Chock Islamic Charity House in Casablanca - said to be the largest orphanage in the Arab world and Africa - have endured squalid living conditions.

The shelter has no health services and lacks potable water, according to Moroccan media reports.

Despite residents' attempts to make public the conditions of the shelter, it was not until King Muhammad VI paid a surprise visit in April that an inquiry was started.

Arrests made

The king ordered an investigation that has resulted in the arrest of orphanage director Muhammad al-Kassi, its secretary-general and eight others on charges of embezzlement, misuse of public money and power, and document forgery.

The shelter houses 700 children
and young men

A police source told Aljazeera.net the investigation was continuing and more arrests of key personnel are expected.

Moroccan media has reported that the suspects' property, as well as that of their families, has been seized and their bank accounts have been frozen.

Before the king's visit, shelter residents gave a CD containing photos of the facility's living conditions to Zulikha Nasri, the king's adviser on social affairs.

Horrible conditions

Moroccan journalist Abd al-Wahid Mahir said the Ain Chock shelter, which was inaugurated by the late king Muhammad V in 1927, "has become a haven for drug addicts and delinquents".

"Some residents prefer to be in jail than to remain there [at the shelter]," he said.

The bathrooms at the shelter were
reported to be unsanitary

"Bathrooms, showers, kitchen and dormitories lack sanitary and basic facilities. The place has turned to a den of cockroaches and mice. It also lacks maintenance services," Mahir said.    

One resident, Said Rafie, 30, who has lived in the shelter since he was six, described the conditions there to Aljazeera.net.

"Official figures, which have been made public after the arrest of the defendants, show we should get meals with meat three times a week, which has never happened. Our daily lunch is either lentils or beans," said Rafie, who is a student at Casablanca Law University.

"We have been starving, which forced some of us to go out to sell vegetables and cigarettes to make money to get food."

Ain Chock residents had to put up
with squalid conditions for years

Rafie, who is also a social activist, said he and his colleagues have been protesting since 1999.

"We have used all means to attract attention to our ordeal," he said. "We have staged protests, we have written to newspapers telling them about our suffering. Unfortunately, our demands had always fallen on deaf ears."

Orphans

Rafie is one example of the 700 residents who have lived at the institute since they were children.

 

Because they have no family and nowhere to go, they found no alternative but to stay even after becoming adults, Rafie said. 

 

Most are students and hope to one day find a job and live a decent life. Some residents leave the shelter and even manage to immigrate illegally to Europe, mainly Spain, in search of a better life.

 

Pictures of those who fled to
Europe line one of the walls 

In one of the rooms of the shelter, pictures on the wall show those who have left for Europe and who still keep in contact with their friends at the shelter.

 

The investigation is reviewing the charity's annual government funding and its expenses.

Moroccan media quoted officials as saying the shelter last year received 10 million Moroccan dirhams ($1.2 million). Reports also revealed that the Ministry of Justice had granted the institution 800,000 dirhams.

Outrage

A copy of an Ain Chock document obtained by the Moroccan media indicated that the institution received a total of 8.2 million dirhams in 2002.

The scandal has triggered outrage among Moroccans, many of whom have called for the maximum penalty for the accused.

A resident of the Ain Chock shelter
sleeps in the dormitory

"The association, which was supposed to be a charity house, turned out to be a corporation, specialising in stealing orphans' money," Karima Rhanem, managing editor of the Morocco Times website, told Aljazeera.net. 

"What happened might certainly be a lesson for any irresponsible behaviour, those thinking of stealing public money.

Photos published

Another Moroccan said he was shocked when he saw the pictures of living conditions in the shelter published after the king's visit. 

"That's a real crime. The residents live in a miserable situation, and thank God the king saved them," Khaled ben Yahya, an English teacher in the northern Moroccan city of Tetouan, told Aljazeera.net.

 

"That's the mirror of what is happening elsewhere. Corruption should be severely punished. It is a crime in all senses of the word, and the defendants' penalty should be a lesson for anyone who dares to commit such crimes," ben Yahya added.