Spies, Nazis, gangsters and cops - the mysterious disappearance of Mehdi Ben Barka
Forty-five years ago, French police officers abducted Moroccan opposition leader Mehdi Ben Barka outside Paris's famous Brasserie Lipp. He is believed to have been killed and buried in the outskirts of Paris. But the French secret services still refuse to open their files on the case. The latest in our Hidden Paris series talks to his son, Bashir, who wants to know the truth.
Brasserie Lipp is an unlikely crime scene. All year round, all day long, distinguished Left Bank Parisians come here to wash down copious servings of choucroute with a good glass of house Riesling. Polticians of all persuasions rub shoulders in this lively and colourful brasserie, half way between the Senate and the National Assembly.
A safe place to enjoy a meal, one would think.
Unfortunately not for Mehdi Ben Barka. The Moroccan left-wing leader was abducted in front of Brasserie Lipp on 29 October 1965. Whisked off by the French police officers, never to be seen again.
Ben Barka, who was living in self-imposed exile, was in Paris to meet French writer Marguerite Duras and film director Georges Franju to discuss making a film on decolonisation. He was scheduled to chair an anti-colonial conference for non-aligned countries in Havana. Duras and Franju however never met Ben Barka and were left waiting at the Brasserie Lipp.
Against her will, Duras was used as bait to attract Ben Barka to Paris, in a trap set by Moroccan secret services and members of the French police, investigations show.
Over the years, the popular Ben Barka had fought on many fronts and made many enemies. Not only had he spearheaded Morocco’s fight for independence against French forces, he had also founded Morocco’s first left-wing opposition party. A supporter of anti-imperialist movements, he was nicknamed the travelling salesman of the revolution.
His son says the self-exiled politician feared for his life and was very prudent when visiting Europe. But did he drop his guard in France.
“Absolutely,” says his son Bashir Ben Barka, “he thought he was safe with the French police, and that’s why the trap worked so well.”
It is thought the two officers drove Ben Barka to a house in the outskirts of Paris, where he was handed over to Moroccan agents, tortured and killed. The whereabouts of his remains is unknown.
His disappearance made the headlines and revealed an underworld rife with secret police officers, former Gestapo collaborators, and petty gangsters, with revelations about the scandal splashed across the front pages of French newspapers.
Israel’s secret services, the Mossad, and the US’s CIA may also have been involved.
“It was a time when people discovered the links between politicians and criminals,” says film director Serge Le Peron, who directed I saw Ben Barka get killed, “because we found out that the gangsters who abducted Ben Barka also belonged to [President Charles] De Gaulle’s security staff and that some of them had collaborated with the Nazis.”
De Gaulle ordered a full-scale inquiry, following which he famously denied allegations the French secret services and the police were involved in Ben Barka’s disappearance. In 1967, French court sentenced in absentia the Moroccan Interior Minister General Mohammed Oufkir and four French gangsters to life in jail. Two French agents were handed down sentences of six and eight years in jail.
However, the Ben Barka case is still open, and investigations are still ongoing. His son, Bashir, believes there was high-level complicity in his father’s disappearance – but he is not sure how high.
“If you read the memoirs of French officials, it appears that some of them knew that my father was going to be kidnapped, but what we don’t know is how far up the hierarchy, officials knew about the preparations,” he says.
According to a former police superintendent, Lucien Aimé-Blanc, the police had gathered information on abduction preparations via wiretaps and had transmitted these to France’s Interior Ministry.
“Does this mean that in the higher strata of the French political system, officials turned a blind eye to these preparations? There is no categorical proof to say so,” says Bashir.
Only the declassification of key secret service files can answer Bashir’s questions about the death of his father. But this is something the French authorities are reluctant to do.
According to French investigative journalist Laurent Léger, France does not want to annoy its former colony and keeps its files on the opposition leader tightly under wraps.
“For years, it was difficult to investigate sensitive affairs in Morocco because France and its former colony maintained a special relationship,” Léger says. “The Ben Barka case is very touchy because it recalls the difficult years under former king Hassan II, 30 or 40 years of dictatorship, deportations, imprisonments and political arrests.”
In 2007, investigating magistrate Patrick Ramael signed five international arrest warrants against high-ranking Moroccan suspects. That very same day, French President Nicolas Sarkozy shook hands with one of them, Moroccan police chief Hosni Benslimane, during an official visit to Morocco.
“Incidents like that have deeply annoyed the French president,” says Léger. The French Justice Ministry suspended the warrants for two years but they are now valid again. Lately the French authorities have shown some signs that they may allow the Ben Barka investigation to move forward again.
Two years ago, a French national defence committee agreed to declassify some key files about Ben Barka. But these documents are still pending declassification and not all of their contents will be made available to the investigators.
“It makes me so angry,” says Bashir, “that the truth about my father is not known because of state security concerns.”
For Ben Barka’s relatives, their fight is less about finding the culprits and more about getting closure.
“We are a family who simply wants to know what happened to their loved one, who wants to grieve,” says Bashir. “And 45 years is a long time to wait.”