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Morocco raises stakes in diplomatic spat with ally France

RABAT/PARIS (Reuters) - Morocco has halted judicial cooperation with France, blocking procedures from prisoner transfers to joint investigations, officials said on Thursday, in a growing dispute with its former colonial ruler over allegations of human rights abuses.

French President Francois Hollande spoke to the Moroccan king this week to try to defuse the rare row with Rabat, an ally under fire from rights groups over police abuses, press freedom and judicial independence.

Rabat on Saturday summoned the French ambassador after French police went to the Moroccan Embassy in Paris seeking to question the head of the domestic intelligence service (DRT) over torture allegations, following lawsuits filed against him in France by French-Moroccan activists.

"We haven't received any explanation regarding the seven French police officers who went to question the head of the territorial surveillance," Moroccan government spokesman Mustapha Khalfi told reporters.

"That damaged the integrity of the Moroccan judiciary system ... That is why we decided to suspend the whole judicial cooperation with France until an update of those agreements."

Lawyers and officials said the move affected cooperation on penal matters such as joint investigations, prisoner transfers and extraditions. Also blocked will be civil procedures for dual French-Moroccan nationals, who number almost 700,000, such as marriages, custody of children issues and divorces. There are about 170 French citizens held in Moroccan prisons.

Morocco's justice ministry had earlier said it had recalled one of its judges who had been liaising on judicial matters.

France's foreign minister had said on Wednesday he hoped the dispute was in the past after speaking to his Moroccan counterpart. "We are continuing our close dialogue with the Moroccan authorities to overcome the recent difficulties," France's foreign ministry said in a statement on Thursday.

France, Morocco's top economic partner, is keen to resolve the dispute as quickly as possible, officials said.

TORTURE CLAIMS

In 2012, the United Nations said torture against people suspected of national security crimes in Morocco was systematic and urged it to end ill-treatment of detainees. U.S.-based Human Rights Watch has urged Morocco to investigate accusations that police tortured pro-democracy activists.

Joseph Breham, a lawyer for one of those who filed a complaint in Paris, said the suspension would block prisoner transfers to France. Several of his clients had been jailed on drug-trafficking charges and had asked for transfers to France after making claims of torture following arrest, he said.

"The Moroccans have realised that prisoners file legal complaints once they get back to France," he said.

But analysts said the diplomatic row may also be linked to the long-running Western Sahara dispute.

One of Africa's oldest territorial feuds, it has been a sensitive issue for Morocco since the United Nations brokered a ceasefire in 1991 that ended a war between the North African kingdom and the Algerian-backed Polisario movement.

The United Nations will vote in April on extending the mandate of a U.N. mission in Western Sahara for another year.

France has long supported Rabat's position on Western Sahara. Last year, Paris pushed the United States to modify a draft resolution that aimed to have U.N. peacekeepers monitor human rights in the territory. The draft prompted Morocco to cancel joint U.S.-Moroccan military exercises.

Spanish actor Javier Bardem angered Morocco by quoting a French ambassador as saying Paris chose to ignore human rights abuses in Western Sahara, a former Spanish colony that Morocco annexed in 1975.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Roman Nadal acknowledged on Wednesday that Bardem had met France's U.N. ambassador Gerard Araud in 2011 to discuss Western Sahara, but said: "Our U.N. representative ... did not say what was attributed to him."

(Additional reporting by Chine Labbe in Paris and Zakia Abdennebi in Rabat; Writing by Patrick Markey; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

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