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Thrown into a Moroccan jail

The story of an American held for 13 months on drug trafficking charges after vacationing in Spain.

Willson said he learned of allegations against O’Connor only after being detained in Morocco. Willson insists he never saw drugs nor heard them discussed, and that what happened to him in Morocco was a monumental and perilous misunderstanding.

A U.S. State Department official familiar with the matter said that soon after Willson’s arrest, the department received a copy of a Moroccan investigation report containing the allegations against him and the details about O'Connor, but as a matter of practice, it cannot “investigate or otherwise intervene in foreign judicial processes.”

“The Department of State defers to Mr. Willson to provide an accurate account as to what took place,” said the official, who responded to questions via email. “We cannot speak to the accuracy of a story that we were not involved in.” It’s a story Willson said he hopes to forget. He was never abused in the prisons where he spent 13 months, he said, but food was terribly scarce. Inmates ate only what their families brought to the jail, he said. Willson at first survived off occasional potatoes or carrots fellow prisoners could spare, he said, until care packages from his family occasionally made it through. His daughter said he lost more than 50 pounds in jail.

“When I ate it was out of the kindness of other people,” Willson said. “I’d like to tell you I hate the Moroccans, but I don’t.”

The worst part of his confinement, Willson said, was the solitude imposed by language. “You can be in a group but, if you can’t communicate, you’re isolated,” he said. “The whole time I was there, I was not able to talk to, or hear, or understand anything anybody said.”

That may partly explain why his pardon and release came as such a shock. “They just opened the door and they said go,” Willson said. “I didn’t think they were really releasing me. I thought they were going to shoot me, to tell you the truth.”

In Casablanca, Willson was issued a temporary passport and he rejoined his family, who said he is slowly recovering.

“He’s still horribly, horribly thin,” Brief said. She said Willson suffers from diabetes and a disrupted balance condition that forced him to retire from flying in 2000 — illnesses she said were aggravated in prison.

Willson’s criminal record in Morocco has been seemingly wiped clean, but what the pardon says about Willson’s conviction is hard to know. The justice ministry isn’t talking and pardons are far from rare.

Morocco’s king pardoned nearly 25,000 prisoners last week in the run-up to a nationwide celebration marking his 10th year on the throne. Even at less festive times, the number of royal pardons issued in Morocco “can come to many hundreds per year,” said Larbi Ben Othmane, a law professor at Mohammed V University in Rabat, the capital.

Ben Othmane said it’s likely someone intervened on a high level to spur Willson’s release. The State Department said it did nothing of the sort, and Willson’s family has another explanation: their relentless prodding of Moroccan officials.

Brief describes turning up at the Moroccan Embassy in Washington in May, lugging boxes full of exculpatory evidence. “They would not take our calls, they would not take our packages,” she said. “So I carried 70 pounds of information, my mother had another 20, 25 pounds.”

They and the State Department credit this meeting with helping set the pardon in motion. At the outset of what turned into a long sit-down, Brief said Morocco’s ambassador to the United States initially said he was pressed for time. She recalled telling him, “Sir with all due respect, this is going to take more than five minutes.”