It was a crime so brutal, it seemed almost inconceivable to those familiar with the Moroccan foothills where it took place.
Last December, two Scandinavian students visiting the High Atlas mountains pitched a tent and camped near the base of Mount Toubkal, a popular tourist destination for hikers. Then they were attacked.
Danish student Louisa Vesterager Jespersen, 24, and her friend Maren Ueland, 28, from Norway, were found dead in their tent with stab wounds to their necks. At least one of them was reportedly beheaded. Soon, video footage that appeared to have documented the brutal act circulated on social media in Morocco and Europe.
On Thursday, two dozen suspects went to trial in Morocco in the case, including at least three men Moroccan officials say participated in the women’s killings. Some of them could face the death penalty. One of the suspects is a dual Spanish-Swiss citizen.
The group appeared in court in the city of Salé, close to the capital, Rabat, on Thursday. Some of the men on trial had reportedly pledged allegiance to the Islamic State, although Reuters reported that Moroccan police spokesman Boubaker Sabik said they acted as “lone wolves.” The Associated Press has reported that more than 1,000 Moroccans are believed to have joined the Islamic State.
The trial was adjourned but will pick back up in two weeks to give defense lawyers further time to prepare. In April, Moroccan state news said that a Swiss man tied to the attack was sentenced to 10 years in prison for “deliberately helping perpetrators of terrorist attacks,” the AP reported.
The killings rattled Morocco, where attacks on tourists are rare, although a 2011 bombing in a popular tourist area of Marrakesh left 17 people dead. According to Morocco’s Ministry of Tourism, more than 11 million nonresident tourists visited Morocco in 2017. In December, Moroccans held vigils in honor of the two women.
At the time, Danish intelligence services called it “an unusually bestial killing of two totally innocent young women.” A number of suspects were initially detained after trying to flee the area by bus.
Earlier this year, Danish police said they were pursuing legal action against 14 people who allegedly shared video footage of the killing of one of the women on social media. Norwegian officials said in December that they had no reason to believe the video was not authentic.