BENI MELLAL, Morocco — There were shouted accusations, tears and fainting as 12 men accused of abducting, raping and torturing a 17-year-old girl made their first court appearance on Thursday in a case that has sharply divided public opinion in Morocco.
“You’re a liar — he’s too small to rape anyone,” a woman shouted at the girl, who sat stoically in the courthouse. “We are hurt. You ruined our lives.”
The girl says she was kidnapped in mid-June in Oulad Ayad, a town in central Morocco, and held for two months by a group of men who raped her repeatedly and forced her to consume drugs and alcohol. She said she was in such a chemical haze that she had no memory of anyone injecting ink under her skin, only of waking up in pain to find her right arm and hand, her legs, and the back of her neck littered with crude tattoos, including a swastika, a naked woman, and the name of one of the men.
“She was sequestered, raped, tortured and tattooed by a gang of 14 to 15 guys, who also traded her body for cigarettes, drugs, and money,” the girl’s lawyer, Youssef Chehbi, said in a telephone interview.
The girl went to the police against her family’s wishes, making the case public, and it has become a fiercely contested topic nationwide. She and the defendants are all from the same area, and many of their families know one another.
Her supporters created the hashtag #JeSuisKhadija (“I am Khadija” in French). Rights activists seized on her cause, and a petition was created to raise money for her. But others have questioned the girl’s character and credibility, and said that she went with the men willingly. They say that she had the tattoos before the alleged abduction, or that she tattooed herself or burned her own skin with cigarettes.
Before the first hearing, the girl, who had covered her arm with a black glove, said in an interview that she was ready to face her attackers in court.
But the confrontations started outside the courthouse, before the hearing began, when parents of the accused approached her father, some pleading loudly with him to make the case go away, others to apologize quietly — though for what, they did not make clear.
“We are all neighbors,” one father said. “We wish this never happened.”
Inside, several women wept as they saw their sons led into the courtroom in handcuffs; some relatives called out, and one mother collapsed before the police cleared the courtroom. The judge called the defendants, aged 18 to 28, into his office one by one, then sent them back to jail as the case progresses.
According to a police report viewed by The New York Times, but which has not been made public, most of the defendants admitted to having sex with the girl, but said that it was consensual — an act that would, in itself, be a crime under Moroccan law because she was younger than 18. Mr. Chehbi, her lawyer, said that one of the men had also acknowledged that she did not have tattoos.
Mr. Chehbi said the girl was heading to her aunt’s house in mid-June, when two young men on a motorcycle approached her; one drew a knife, and they told her to come with them.
They then drove her to a large, dense olive grove and took turns raping her, he said, before more men arrived and joined in.
The girl returned to her family on Aug. 17, after the men made a deal with her father, Mr. Chehbi said: They would return his daughter alive, if he promised not to go to the police. She went to the police two days later anyway.
Mr. Chehbi said that some people have blamed his client, saying she had provoked the men accused of attacking her.
“We consider, from a human rights perspective, that the abuse she was subjected to was of high consequence, since other than violating her physical and bodily integrity, the presumed damaged her dignity, and psychological and social stability,” said Ahmed El Haij, president of the Moroccan Association of Human Rights.
The case was the latest in a series of alleged assaults on women that have caused public outrage in Morocco in the past few years.
In 2012, Amina Filali, 16, killed herself, swallowing rat poison after allegedly being forced to marry her rapist. The case helped prompt Morocco to change a law that permitted a rapist to avoid prosecution if he agreed to marry his victim.
In 2016, another 16-year-old, Khadija Souidi, who was pregnant, died after setting herself on fire when the men she had accused of gang-raping her threatened to release photographs of the ordeal. Last year, Nassima Al Horr, also 16, hanged herself after the men she said had raped her were acquitted.
In August 2017, a video of a 24-year-old woman being sexually assaulted by several men on a bus rocked Morocco. The video, which was posted on social media, showed the perpetrators molesting a woman while laughing and tearing off her clothes while other passengers looked on.
Partly in response to such high-profile cases, Morocco enacted this year a law on violence against women.
“Obviously women are not equal to men in Morocco, that’s a fact,” Ahmed Benchemsi, the communications director for Human Rights Watch’s Middle East and North Africa division, said in a telephone interview. “The law was a step forward because violence against women wasn’t regarded as a crime before, but it still has gaps.”
Among those gaps, he said, are a lack of mechanisms to hold the authorities accountable, and to protect domestic abuse victims.
Aida Alami reported from Beni Mellal, and Iliana Magra from London.