SALE, Morocco (AP) — Nearly two dozen suspects returned to court on terrorism charges Thursday for the brutal slayings of two Scandinavian women hiking in the Atlas Mountains.
The three main suspects in the December killings of Maren Ueland, 28, of Norway, and Louisa Vesterager Jespersen, 24, of Denmark, claimed allegiance to the Islamic State group. They recorded the slayings and posted the video online.
The two women were knifed to death in their tent in a remote area of the scenic Atlas range not far from the village of Imlil, often the starting point for treks to Mount Toubkal, North Africa's highest peak.
Neither of their families was present in the courtroom in Sale. A lawyer seeking compensation from the Moroccan state for the Danish victim's family read a letter from the mother asking the court to issue death sentences, which the prosecutor is seeking.
Lawyer Khalid Fataoui, on the verge of tears, also read passages in which the young woman's mother described how her life has been ruined by her daughter's death.
"I cry all the time when I think of her. My daughter and her (friend) Maren had dreams and were taken in the most terrible way," the letter said.
The trial is expected to wrap up with final defense statements and produce a verdict on July 18. The men charged as the main suspects, ages 25 to 30, have pleaded guilty and said they regret their actions.
Their state-appointed defense attorney, Havida Maksaoui, said ahead of Thursday's proceedings that she would plead for mitigating circumstances and ask the court to order psychological tests.
"My clients are victims of poverty and ignorance. They fell prey to evil," Maksaoui said in an interview. "Something is wrong with them mentally."
The prosecutor said in his closing arguments in June that he would seek death sentences for the three, calling them "human beasts" while noting the numerous stab wounds to their bodies.
Among the suspected accomplices, most arrested in the Marrakech region, are several imams as well as ex-convicts.
Only one suspected accomplice has pleaded innocent, a Swiss-Spanish convert to Islam, Kevin Zoller. Investigators allege he has links to men who orchestrated the women's killings and had direct contact with members of the Islamic State group in Syria via the encrypted messaging service Telegram.
His lawyer, Saad Sahli, maintained Zoller "does not have any relations with IS, either abroad or in Morocco."
Another Swiss man who had been among suspected accomplices was sentenced in April to 10 years in prison, convicted on charges including "deliberately helping perpetrators of terrorist acts" and training terrorists, the state-run news agency MAP said at the time.
More than 1,000 Moroccans had joined IS before its "caliphate" crumbled in Syria and Iraq. Between 2017 and 2018, Moroccan authorities dismantled 20 cells with terrorist affiliations.