Morocco has made impressive strides in human rights over the last fifteen years. These advances have included greater respect for basic civil and political rights, including freedom of expression and freedom of association. This period, especially since the accession of King Mohamed VI in 1999, has also witnessed efforts to address issues of impunity for serious and systematic past crimes, including disappearances and torture.
But Morocco has been no exception to the global backsliding in the protection of civil liberties and basic freedoms in the name of counter-terrorism. Important elements of the progress made during the last fifteen years are now endangered by the way that authorities have rounded up and imprisoned thousands of Moroccans accused of links to terrorism. The credible reports of torture and mistreatment of these suspects, and the clear denial of their civil rights during the judicial process, suggest that the broader freedoms Moroccans have enjoyed during the last decade and-a-half can be reversed. The stakes of the recent crackdown are high, not only for those suspected of involvement in militant or extremist groups, but for all Moroccans who have benefited from the reforms.
This report, based on a research visit to Morocco during January and February 2004, first surveys the steps that the government has taken to address issues of impunity for past human rights crimes, with particular attention to the role of the Equity and Reconciliation Commission established in January 2004 and the structural and political limitations within which it operates. The report then documents basic violations of due process rights of detainees who were arrested in the course of the authorities crackdown on suspected Islamist militants. These arrests began after the September 11, 2001 attacks in New York and Washington, and escalated significantly in the weeks and months that followed May 16, 2003. On that day, twelve suicide bombers killed thirty-three people, in addition to themselves, and wounded another 100 in coordinated attacks in Moroccos largest city, Casablanca.
Human Rights Watch unreservedly condemns the May 2003 bombings. Indiscriminate attacks on civilians are the antithesis of human rights values, and the Moroccan government, like all other governments, has the right and the duty to prevent such crimes, and to bring to justice those who perpetrate them.
Counter-terror measures, however, must be conducted in ways that comply with Moroccos obligations under international human rights law. Individuals suspected of plotting or carrying out acts of violence must be afforded their basic rights at all times. A government may, in circumstances of a dire national emergency, suspend or derogate some rights, for a limited time, and to the extent strictly required by the exigencies of the situation, but under no circumstances can a state derogate from its obligation from the prohibition of torture and cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment. Detention should not be arbitrary, and must be subject to judicial review. In addition, the most fundamental fair trial standards must be respected.
As this report shows, Moroccos security forces and judiciary failed to uphold the rights of those arrested in the crackdown on suspected militants that followed the bombings of May 16, 2003. The police carried out massive arrests and home searches without judicial warrants, mostly in poor neighborhoods that are suspected Islamist strongholds. At least 2,000 were detained in the months following the attacks, according to human rights organizations. Many reported that they were then transported to a detention center in Temara, outside Rabat, that is operated by the General Directorate for the Surveillance of the Territory (Direction Générale de la Surveillance du Territoire, DGST, better known by its former name, the Direction de la Surveillance du Territoire, DST), the main domestic intelligence agency. While Moroccan authorities deny the existence of a DGST-run detention center, the testimonies we collected affirm earlier accounts of suspected Islamists who said they were interrogated by the DST at such a center. Those testimonies have been published by Moroccan newspapers and by other Moroccan and international human rights organizations.
In cases we examined, police held suspected Islamist militants in garde à vue detention beyond the legally permitted limit before bringing them before a judge. The police then falsified the recorded arrest date to make it appear that garde à vue had stayed within the legal bounds.
Many detainees stated that their interrogators subjected them to physical and mental torture and degrading treatment in order to extract a confession or to induce them to sign a statement they had not made. During their garde à vue detention, they had no access to a lawyer and the police did not disclose their whereabouts to relatives. In some cases lawyers were not given adequate time to study and prepare the defense for their clients. Many suspects were convicted and sentenced before October 1, 2003 the date an amendment to the Criminal Procedural Code went into force and granted defendants the right to appeal their convictions on the facts.
Once police obtained incriminating statements from them, defendants found themselves on a fast track to conviction, deprived of virtually all means to exercise their rights to mount a defense in the pretrial investigation and during the trial itself. Defendants either were not informed of their right to a medical examination or not able to exercise it in a meaningful manner; they did not have legal counsel at all stages of the judicial process; and the trial judges admitted into evidence both statements made by third parties who were not present in court and confessions attributed to the defendant while he was being held in prolonged incommunicado detention. In addition the trial judges rejected defense motions to hear witnesses who might have provided exonerating testimony.
Moroccan authorities responded constructively to human rights criticism in 2004. They stated their intent to introduce a draft law criminalizing torture and to withdraw formal reservations they made when ratifying several international treaties on human rights. They vowed to carry out investigations when international or domestic human rights organizations present evidence of torture.
In another positive development, the state-created Commission on Equity and Reconciliation has begun its work of documenting grave human rights abuses committed in past decades, including hundreds of unsolved cases of forced disappearances. It has the power to compensate victims and their survivors, as well as to recommend means to rehabilitate and assist them and to memorialize the injustices they endured.
This commission represents a significant advance over past efforts in Morocco to address past human rights abuses and surpasses all other state institutions yet established in other Middle East and North African countries to address past abuses. However, its potential to succeed in the mission of providing remedies for past abuses and a truthful account of past state repression is constrained by several factors. Most significantly, the mandate of the commission prevents it from naming individual perpetrators and seems to focus on certain categories of abuse at the expense of other grave abuses. Further, the commission has no means to compel testimony or the production of information, raising the question of whether officials and former officials will cooperate with its investigations.
Human Rights Watch welcomes the affirmations by Moroccan authorities of their commitment to meet the countrys human rights obligations, the acknowledgement of grave past abuses, and legal reforms that have been taken or are pending. Beyond the positive steps it has taken, Morocco must do far more to reverse the deterioration in human rights that has occurred in the treatment of persons suspected of involvement in terrorist crimes. Given the pattern of human rights violations emanating from the crackdown on suspected Islamist militants and the application of the 2003 counter-terror law, Moroccan authorities should take immediate steps to bring all practices and laws into compliance with both the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the Convention against Torture and other Cruel Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CAT). Above all, law enforcement agents must be held accountable when they violate laws governing the detention and treatment of suspects. In order for this to happen, courts must fulfill their roles as a bulwark against police and prosecutorial abuse by independently reviewing the facts before them and rejecting evidence that is tainted by torture, improper coercion, or other procedural violations.
The international community has an important role to play in pressing the Moroccan authorities to meet these obligations under international human rights law regarding the treatment of persons suspected of terrorist crimes. First, Morocco, like other countries, is required to submit periodic reports to the Counter-Terrorism Committee (CTC) of the United Nations Security Council, under Security Council Resolution 1373 (2001), concerning steps it has taken to combat and prevent terrorism. The CTC should, in its review of periodic country reports, require that the reporting state take steps to ensure that counter-terrorism measures introduced or proposed are consistent with the countrys human rights obligations. Second, Morocco is one of the countries to which the United States has reportedly extradited or rendered terror suspects. The U.S. or any other state sponsoring or facilitating such transfers has an obligation to ensure that such transfers do not violate the Convention against Tortures absolute prohibition against sending or returning a person to countries for detention and interrogation where there are substantial grounds for believing that he would be in danger of being subjected to torture.