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Securing a Culture of Human Rights

For Moroccan advocates of human rights, the government’s attention to questions of women’s rights and progress on the issue of redress represented victories and accomplishments to be celebrated. But they did not remove an uneasiness about the future or the degree to which the infamous ‘‘page’’ had indeed been turned. Securing a culture of human rights remained a prominent item on Morocco’s human rights agenda.

In the final years of Hassan II’s reign, improvements in the human rights situation were reflected in the annual catalog of Amnesty International’s concerns, which was much shorter than that of a decade earlier. Nevertheless, there was reason for continuing concern. The aging Islamist leader Sheikh ‘Abdessalam Yassine remained under house arrest,

without charge or warrant, and his justice and charity organization (al-

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‘Adl wa’l ‘Ihsan) continued to be banned. More than forty political prisoners were serving sentences after unfair trials—including three individuals convicted of ‘‘insulting the royal family.’’ Police brutality and violations of garde a vue restrictions were documented, especially in the Western Sahara or against Saharans living in territorial Morocco. Most disturbing, reports of torture continued to surface.46

Hopes were fed when Mohammed VI ascended the throne and proclaimed his attachment to democratic reform and human rights. Moroccan human rights advocates welcomed the institutional changes announced one after another through 2001. A five-year judicial reform had already begun at the time of Hassan II’s death, and shortly after Mohammed VI took the throne, prison reforms were announced.47 An arbitration commission was created in fall 1999 to settle indemnity issues related to past abuses, and Driss Basri—the former interior minister who was practically an institution—was ousted. Almost as surprising, Yassine’s eleven-year house arrest was lifted, in a generous response to the lengthy letter of advice and criticism sent by the self-styled Islamic sage to the young monarch.48

Over the next several months the king regularly referred to reform projects in progress, and by the end of 2000 he began to present them to Parliament. (Several of these have already been mentioned above, but to appreciate the breadth of reform, a comprehensive review is useful.) A proposal to reform the 1958 public liberties law went to Parliament in December, and a plan to incorporate human rights education into the public school curriculum was announced soon thereafter.49 In April 2001 the king appointed a royal commission to reform the Mudawwana and he announced structural changes for the CCDH. The CCDH was given greater independence and charged with issuing an annual report on the state of human rights in the nation.50 Later in the year the monarch issued a decree reviving the diwan al madhalim (board of grievances), an Islamic court used in pre-protectorate Morocco to review complaints against officials. The new office was to serve as a sort of ombudsman, mediating between citizens and authorities, and using its authority to uphold the rule of law and principles of fairness.51 In another gesture to appease social tensions, the Royal Institute of Amaz- igh Culture was established. The demand for better recognition of amaz- igh culture and the tamazighte language had been heightened in the months leading up to the 2001 World Conference on Racism. Finally, the 2002 parliamentary elections took place without government interference, in an atmosphere more free and fair than any could remember. Though Justice and Charity remained banned, the new Justice and

Development Islamic Party had been approved and surprised many

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observers when it garnered the third highest number of votes, as well as 42 of 325 seats in the Parliament’s lower chamber.

King Mohammed marked the moment with the appointment of a new prime minister, technocrat Driss Jettou. After the flurry of new initiatives floated over the 2000-2002 period, the 2002 session of Parliament opened in October with a full agenda but few new far-reaching proposals. Parliament was still deliberating proposed changes to the 1958 public liberties law when bomb blasts rocked the city of Casablanca in May 2003. The suicide attacks were carried out by the Salafia Jihadia (a previously obscure terrorist group with apparent links to al-Qaida and Ansar al-Islam) and targeted Jewish cultural sites and Western establishments in the city. The attacks claimed forty-four lives and left Moroccans across the country shocked and angry. They also quickly focused parliamentary attention on a second pending bill, an anti-terrorism law that proposed to expand police powers and extend the time in which a detainee could be held in incommunicado detention. The anti-terrorism measure was rapidly passed; the project to liberalize the public liberties law appears to have been shelved. ‘‘The moment of truth has sounded,’’ said King Mohammed in late May, “announcing the end of an era of tolerance (laxisme) for those who would exploit democracy to attack the authority of the State.’’52

The attacks of May 2003 altered the balance between proponents of security and proponents of liberty, but they did not introduce new factors into the dynamics of Moroccan politics. While human rights advocates had welcomed reforms, they had complained about the slow pace with which they were enacted,53 and they had also recognized a continuing need for vigilance. There had never been substantial evidence that Moroccan police and security officials intended voluntarily to relinquish either the powers or the techniques used to repress rights in earlier years, and that was reason enough for concern.

Alongside the announced reforms, human rights groups assembled a list of new and recurring concerns. One of the first issues to arise after Mohammed VI’s coronation involved the right to assemble. In September 1999 a peaceful demonstration about socioeconomic concerns in the Western Sahara was broken up by security forces, and dozens of Saharans were arrested and/or severely beaten following a subsequent protest march.54 Over the next three years there were numerous demonstrations and sit-ins, and more than twenty of them were marked by police brutality. Police used force, and often wielded truncheons, to break up demonstrations organized by a wide variety of groups for various purposes. Unemployed university graduates, doctors, engineers, and journalists, for example, as well as the blind and disabled unemployed,

called attention to their plight with sit-ins. Students protested transpor-

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tation problems at their university, and factory workers went on strike. Members of Justice and Charity demonstrated for legal recognition of their organization, and human rights groups marched in front of Parliament on Human Rights Day, demanding that those responsible for abuses be prosecuted.55 Thirty-six human rights advocates initially charged and convicted of participating in an unauthorized demonstration in December 2000 were eventually acquitted by an appeal court that ruled that the Ministry of the Interior had failed to transmit its rejection of the permit in writing. Meetings and demonstrations planned by amaz- igh activists were more effectively banned in 2001 and 2002.56

Liberties of the press were also tested and trimmed. Morocco’s press is among the most liberal in the Arab world, but the topics of God, king, and territorial boundaries (the Western Sahara) have long been taboo. In the mid-1990s Moroccan journalists had cautiously begun to write of Morocco’s dark years, and by 1998 the local press was openly referring to the horrors of Tazmamert and other notorious prisons, as well as other social problems of past and present. But in 2000 journalists encountered new limits. During the first months of the Mohammed VI’s reign, officials in some localities seemed uncertain about the rules and temporarily seized several publications that risked stirring up trouble. In response to one such seizure, the Moroccan communications minister reportedly declared that censorship was absurd and no longer practiced in Morocco.57 By mid-summer 2000, however, the government had changed its tune. Through the second half of 2000, both domestic and international publications were seized or banned—for a wide variety of offenses. Sales of a September edition of the London Economist, for example, were blocked because the magazine questioned the scale of oil findings recently announced by the government.58 Other publications were punished for publishing stories about the Western Sahara, criticizing the regime of Hassan II, or threatening to cast new light on historical events deemed best left in the shadows, such as the presumed assassination of political figure Mehdi Ben Barka in 1965. Tensions reached a crisis point at the end of 2000, when three publications were summarily shut down by the prime minister after they published a provocative letter about conspirators in the 1972 attempted military coup against Hassan II. Although the ban was reversed in early 2001, the honeymoon for the press had ended. Over the next two years, foreign papers that carried stories critical of the monarchy or discussed sensitive social issues risked confiscation. The French weekly Le Courrier International, for example, was banned for its coverage of amazigh culture and related political tensions.59 Courts sustained libel charges against several publications that alleged corruption and misdeeds by government officials and exofficials, and in one prominent case, the government prosecuted news-

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paper publisher Ali Lamrabet for questioning the “territorial integrity of Morocco’’ and ‘‘insulting sacred institutions.’’60 Lamrabet soon became a cause celebre. His conviction and harsh prison sentence (four years reduced to three on appeal) sparked protests from human rights groups within Morocco and abroad. Reporters without Borders awarded him their annual press freedom award.

By May 16, 2003, the day of the Casablanca bombings, the human rights climate had already deteriorated markedly. In addition to restrictions on public expression, abuses by police and security officials were becoming increasingly frequent. Even the first year of Mohammed VI’s reign was marked by three deaths in detention, with autopsies suggesting abuse.61 In that same year, the AMDH documented 224 cases of alleged torture.62 Some cases of abuse by low-level officials have been prosecuted, but acquittals are not uncommon and convictions are often overturned on appeal.63 A number of legal loopholes that either facilitated the practice of torture or impeded prosecution were identified in a joint OMDH-FIDH report submitted to the UN’s Committee Against Torture in October 2003. The report makes it clear that the organizations continue to be outraged by ‘‘the failure of legislative measures banning torture and by the ongoing impunity for crimes of torture’’ as well as by the ‘‘arbitrary anomalies arising with the fight against terrorism.’’64 The AMDH’s annual report that year took the concerns a step further, warning about the return of old practices among the state police following the May 2003 terrorist incident in Casablanca. More than fifteen hundred people had been rounded up, and the ensuing judicial proceedings pointed up violations of the garde a vue limits, accusations of torture and ill treatment, inhumane conditions of detention, compromised standards of judicial fairness, and application of the death penalty.65 Adding weight internationally to the concerns expressed by local human rights groups, the UN Committee against Torture recorded its concerns about the upsurge in reports of torture and the erosion of legal protections,66 and in June 2004 Amnesty International released a report on what it called the systematic practice of torture and ill treatment of suspects held at one of Morocco’s main detention centers, near Rabat.67 Human Rights Watch followed up by urging U.S. officials to raise the human rights issues with King Mohammed during his state visit to Washington in July.68

Against this generally somber backdrop, the January 2004 announcement of a royal clemency for some twenty-five political prisoners was welcome news. Among those amnestied were journalist Ali Lamrabet and Ali Salem Tamek, a human rights advocate from Western Sahara who was serving a two-year sentence he received in October 2002.69 More

good news came with the announcement in July—following the Amnesty

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International report—that the government was preparing legislation to criminalize torture.70 These developments can rightfully be viewed as the results of monitoring and pressure from human rights groups, and they are encouraging for advocates of human rights. Nevertheless, it would be naive to suggest that they represent the advent of an institutional culture of human rights in Morocco. Advances and setbacks illustrate the constant ebb and flow of a human rights situation at the mercy of institutions that are not yet guided by principles of human rights, particularly law enforcement and judicial institutions. The risk of rapid reversal remains real, threatening deterioration of even the most fundamental human rights.

Human rights groups have an important role to play in disseminating values that respect human rights and in ultimately securing a culture of human rights. Moroccan human rights advocates have accepted this role but play it conservatively. Recent repression of the press and harsh responses to peaceful demonstrations point up the need for caution: there are risks attached to actions that cross some threshold difficult to discern. Human rights groups are also aware that they share the stage with many other players, some with considerably more power than they. Reform efforts in recent parliamentary sessions have shown that even the monarch is limited with respect to the change he can impose upon the makhzen bureaucrats, and events like the Casablanca bombings effectively shore up the position of those who resist liberalizing reform. It is always easier to plan change at an institutional level than to create a shift in culture.

 
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