Spanish security forces deployed on the frontier of Melilla are breathing a sigh of relief. For a little while at least they will not have to cross paths with "The Giant," who taunts them from the no man's land between Spanish and Moroccan checkpoints. For now, they will not face hails of stones from youths incited by Said Chramti, which has at times forced the closure of the international border of Beni Enzar.
Chramti, 36, obtained his nickname because he is almost two meters tall. He was cut down a peg or two late last month when he was arrested by Spanish police under a warrant issued by prosecutors in Nador, Melilla's neighboring city. He was later released on bail but named as a suspect in a list of crimes: unauthorized protest, disobeying the authorities and causing injury to a public servant in the exercise of his duties. Curiously, the Moroccan media has largely ignored his detention.
His most recent act was carried out in Melilla, the first time Chramti had taken his struggle to Spanish soil. Some of his followers entered the city's historical quarter and smashed the arm off a statue of Pedro de Estopiñán, who conquered the city in 1497. Chramti sent photos of the raid to the press. He has also been known to contact the Spanish media to boast about his feats against "Spanish colonialism," although he has remained silent since his arrest.
In the Spanish autonomous city, though, many applaud The Giant's arrest, starting with the city governor, Juan José Imbroda. Prosecutors in Melilla are also drawing up reports on some of his acolytes.
When Chramti is not organizing the stoning of Spanish police, he amuses himself by stopping food trucks heading into Melilla
Most in Melilla would like to see Chramti spend a little time behind bars. The vice president of the Committee for the Liberation of Ceuta and Melilla has some penal experience - a total of 37 months for fomenting illegal immigration, lack of an identity card and handling stolen goods, among other offenses.
When Chramti is not organizing the stoning of Spanish police, he amuses himself by stopping food trucks heading into Melilla, as in summer 2010, with fruits, vegetables and fish. But The Giant's biggest stunt came in September 2008, when he recognized the chief of police, a Treasury official and three colleagues returning from a meeting with their Moroccan counterparts in the Customs building 300 meters from the border. Chramti began to harangue the officials, who were dressed incognito, drawing a crowd of around 100 people who surrounded the delegation. The officials sought refuge in a hairdresser's establishment until the Moroccan police came to their rescue.
The six Spanish civil servants filed a police complaint in Madrid over the incident, for which Chramti received an 18-month jail term. However, Morocco does not have an extradition treaty with Spain. Chramti was scheduled to be tried in Nador in February under a bilateral judicial agreement. The officials oddly withdrew their complaint at around the same time.
Since municipal elections in 2009 Chramti has been under the political tutelage of Yahya Yahya, the mayor of Beni Enzar and the leader of the Committee for the Liberation of Ceuta and Melilla. Yahya was sentenced to 15 months in Melilla in 2008 for resisting arrest when the police went to his house following a report of assault. His wife was injured in the incident but Yahya was cleared of domestic violence charges.
Yahya then went to live on the Moroccan side of the border but his behavior did not change. In Rome in August 2008, he had a violent argument with his wife in a restaurant and then sexually assaulted a tourist in the street, according to Italian media. When the Carabinieri arrived at his hotel to arrest him they were greeted with a flurry of fists. He was sentenced to 30 months for "rebellion against and causing injury to" a police officer and for domestic assault.
Morocco withdrew its ambassador to Rome in protest as Yahya is a senator. He is also co-president of the Hispano-Moroccan parliamentary group. Allied with Yahya, Chramti has now expanded his own base of operations. In August he orchestrated the incursion of half a dozen activists on the Spanish territory of Peñón de Vélez de la Gomera and in October, coinciding with the Spain-Morocco summit in Rabat, he attempted the same thing on the island garrison of Alhucemas.
His followers did manage to briefly plant a Moroccan flag on the Spanish Chafarinas islands on the same day.
Although Chramti is a thorn in the side of the Spanish authorities, he enjoys a degree of public backing. When he emerged from custody two weeks ago dozens of supporters were waiting outside the police station. Among them was Yahya. The Giant's complaints about the "arbitrariness" of the Spanish police - whom he accuses of preventing Moroccan youths from entering Melilla from Nador and of stamping Moroccan passports with "annulled" - have not gone unheeded.
Until now, Chramti has not had to answer for the altercations he has provoked on the Morocco-Spain border. He also enjoys a good relationship with the men who guard it. In 2008, this correspondent, guided by Chramti, made a tour of the Moroccan side of the border that would have otherwise been impossible, even with official permits. At the same time, a French journalist mistakenly jumped a Moroccan checkpoint on a highway. Thanks to Chramti, she faced no sanctions. Who, then, was Chramti really working for?