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III. Background: The State of Human Rights in Morocco

Morocco’s Acknowledgement of Past Abuses

Morocco began making progress on human rights during the last years of King Hassan II’s thirty-eight year reign.  That progress continued under Hassan’s son and successor, Mohammed VI, who ascended the throne after his father’s death in July 1999. 

Progress occurred on many fronts. Elections became more transparent. Citizens enjoyed increasing freedom to criticize those who governed them, both in the press and in public gatherings.  In the late 1980s Hassan II began releasing batches of political prisoners.  These included the alleged coup plotters held at the notorious secret prison of Tazmamart, where they had been incarcerated since completing their sentences years earlier.  In 1991, Hassan II freed about 270 persons whom the security services had “disappeared” as long as nineteen years earlier.1  In 1994, the king amnestied more than 400 political prisoners.2  Opposition figures returned to Morocco after years of exile; the king named one of them, Abderrahmane Youssoufi, prime minister in 1998.  In 2000, Mohammed VI ended the ten-year-long house arrest of Shaikh Abdeslam Yassine, leader of the non-recognized Islamist movement Justice and Charity.

In 1993, Morocco ratified the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CAT), the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), and the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC).   However, it entered formal reservations to each.3

Over the past decade, authorities showed growing tolerance toward the activities of local and international human rights organizations.  They also opened prisons to inspections by the Moroccan Observatory for Prisons, an independent group that publishes each year a critical report on the conditions of incarceration.

In October 2003, revisions to the code of criminal procedure enhanced the right of defendants to a fair trial.  The amendments made to articles 396-415 of the code gave defendants facing time in prison the possibility of appealing their conviction on the basis of the facts; they previously had only the possibility of applying to the Court of Cassation to quash their conviction on the grounds of mis-application of the law by the lower courts.4

In February 2004, the parliament approved the king’s proposal to overhaul the family code, abolishing most of the provisions that discriminated against women in matters of marriage, divorce, and custody of children.

Morocco’s press enjoyed an increasing liberty of tone, publishing articles that it could not or would not publish before.   Newspapers broke taboos on reporting about government corruption, financial scandals, human rights abuses, and social ills such as poverty, prostitution, violence against women, AIDS and pedophilia.  Some newspapers even criticized the government’s handling of the Western Sahara conflict.

But the progress has been both partial and conditional.  The courts continued to render rulings motivated by political considerations rather than the evidence presented, and defendants in sensitive cases had little chance of receiving a fair trial.  For journalists and dissidents, “red lines” remained in place on what could be expressed publicly, and those who crossed them risked lawsuits or imprisonment, and their publications risked suspension or closure. While demonstrations became commonplace in the capital, Rabat, participants in opposition rallies and sit-ins were sometimes dispersed by club-wielding police, and charged with participating in “unauthorized” gatherings. 

The File of the “Disappeared”

One of the measurements of progress has been the extent to which taboos that had surrounded the earlier decades of repression have lifted.  Since the mid-1990s, Moroccans began recounting, in a blizzard of books and essays, how Hassan II’s security services crushed suspected opponents, including leftists, Islamists, advocates of independence for the Western Sahara, and suspected coup plotters.  They described how the secret police “disappeared” hundreds of men and women, including the exiled opposition leader Mehdi Ben Barka, who was kidnapped on a Paris street in 1965 and never seen again (see below).

The luckier among Morocco’s “disappeared” were freed by Hassan II after years in secret prisons, but a few hundred, it is estimated, remain missing today.5 Hundreds of other suspected opponents of Hassan II were arbitrarily arrested and tortured in police stations like the notorious Derb Moulay Cherif in Casablanca, before being sentenced in unfair trials to long prison terms.

For years, Moroccan officials from the king down categorically denied all serious human rights violations. In a 1989 television interview, Hassan II declared, “If one percent of the human rights violations denounced by Amnesty International were true, I would no longer be able to sleep.”6 But in the face of growing domestic and international pressure, the king in 1990 created an Advisory Council on Human Rights (ACHR) in order, he said, to “put an end to all of the allegations…and to close this [human rights] file.”7

Among the ACHR’s activities was an inquiry into past human rights violations.  In October 1998 it announced the results, asserting that a total of 112 Moroccans had been the victims of “disappearances,” of whom 56 were dead. Hassan II accepted the conclusions of the ACHR and asked it to lay out a plan to address the unresolved cases among the 112 within a period of six months.  The king told the Moroccan parliament on October 9, 1998:

I wish – and am resolved – to close definitively the human rights file…. I have given orders that the procedures necessary to close this file be put in place, so that Morocco shakes off an image that does not reflect its true self and that corresponds neither with its past nor its present.8

Then-Minister of Human Rights Mohamed Aujjar declared, in response to the list of 112, “Those who have perished will be declared dead.  Death certificates and compensation will then be issued.”9

In April 1999, the ACHR issued its final report on the 112 “disappearance” cases. It proposed that the king set up a mechanism to give financial compensation to certain victims and thereby close the file on “disappearances.”

Human rights organization lost no time in attacking the ACHR’s handling of the issue.    They charged that the figure of 112 was well below the real number of Moroccans and Western Saharans still missing after being taken into custody, and claimed the true number was closer to 600.  They also criticized the AHCR for providing no details on the 112 cases − how these “disappearances” were carried out, by whom, and where the persons had been taken.

Far from definitively closing the file, the ACHR’s 1999 report turned out to be only the first in a series of measures taken by authorities to address the problem of past human rights violations.  These steps were shaped on the one side by the pressure exerted by victims and human rights organizations, and on the other side by the determination of authorities to protect institutions and individuals complicit in the violations.

In a speech delivered on August 20, 1999, one month after he ascended the throne, Mohammed VI acknowledged the state’s responsibility for past “disappearances,” something his father had never done.  Mohamed VI also announced the creation, within the ACHR, of an “Independent Arbitration Commission for the Compensation of Moral and Material Harm Suffered by Victims of Disappearance and Arbitrary Detention, and by their Beneficiaries” (the IC). He assigned the IC the task of receiving applications for compensation from victims of “disappearances” (or their survivors) and of arbitrary detention, and determining the amount of compensation the state should pay them.10

According to an information sheet prepared by the ERC:

By the December 31, 1999 deadline, the IC had received 5,127 applications [for compensation].  It listened to 8,000 persons in the course of 196 hearings.  As of July 10, 2003, the date at which it completed its mission, the IC had issued 5,500 rulings.  In 750 cases, the IC requested an examination by an expert or issued provisional compensation.  It issued 4,700 final decisions, of which nearly 3,700 involved payment of definitive compensation. 870 applications were rejected because the case fell outside the categories of forced disappearance or arbitrary detention.  There were 130 decisions not to pay compensation because the applicants did not appear despite their having been formally invited to do so or because they did not submit the necessary forms. The total amount of compensation paid was nearly one billion dirhams, or the equivalent of U.S.$100 million.11  

Abdelaziz Benzakour, a member of the IC (as well as the ACHR and, later, of the ERC), presented these figures orally at the ERC’s forum on reparations, adding, “Practically all of the compensation total was paid out, since the office of the prime minister carried out the rulings of the IC as soon as it was notified about them.”12

The IC was nevertheless criticized by human rights organizations and boycotted by many victims and their survivors.  Among their criticisms:

  • the commission was mandated, in an arbitrary fashion, to compensate victims of certain categories of abuse but not others;
  • it was empowered only to issue financial compensation while making no contribution to the cause of exposing the truth in each case or identifying the perpetrators and holding them accountable;
  • the IC was not composed of persons selected by the different parties to the process but rather of persons serving at the pleasure of the king;
  • its methods of working and setting the level of compensation were never made transparent; and
  • it required that applicants for compensation agree in writing, at the start of the process, to accept the IC’s ruling as final.

The 1998-1999 ACHR inquiry into “disappearances” and the work of the IC from 1999 to 2003 constituted two steps toward acknowledging and making reparations for grave past violations.  But these steps remained inadequate, at a time of rising domestic and international expectations as to how a state should face the issue of past grave violations.  Having won official acceptance of the principle of compensation, Moroccan civil society focused its demands concerning past abuses on the creation of an independent truth commission.

In November 2003, the ACHR, recently restructured so as to enhance its powers and independence from the palace, formally proposed that the king establish an Equity and Reconciliation Commission to address the issues of “disappearances” and arbitrary detention. The king agreed and, in a January 2004 speech inaugurating the ERC, presented it as “the last step in a process leading to the definitive closure of a thorny issue.”

Once again, the Moroccan monarch was speaking of grave human rights abuses as if they were an issue of the past that would be laid to rest by an initiative from the palace.

While the Commission was itself the product of improving human rights conditions in Morocco, it was born at a moment when those conditions in Morocco were in flux and in some respects worsening as the result of terrorism and the state’s response to it. This deterioration posed a predicament for the Commission: Focused on the past and on recommendations for the future, what were the commission’s obligations, if any, toward present-day abuses? This issue is explored in Section VIII of this report.

The Aftermath of the Casablanca Bombings

The fragility of Morocco’s human rights progress was laid bare by the state’s response to Morocco’s first-ever mass terrorist attack.  On the night of May 16, 2003, suicide bombers struck several locations in Casablanca, killing forty-five persons, including twelve attackers. 

Less than one week later, parliament unanimously adopted an anti-terrorist law (Law 3/2003), which had been under debate since autumn 2002 and which raised numerous human rights concerns.  The law extended the maximum duration of pre-arraignment detention from eight to twelve days in cases considered to involve terrorism.  It also defined the term in a very broad manner. The law considers an act as terrorist if its “main objective is to disrupt public order by intimidation, force, violence, fear or terror” and is composed of one or more acts listed in the article.  These include, in addition to physical attacks on other persons, “the involvement in organized groups or congregations with the intent of committing an act of terrorism,” and “the promulgation and dissemination of propaganda or advertisement in support of the above-mentioned acts.”  In the months following the Casablanca attacks, the government used this broad definition to convict hundreds of suspected members of terrorist cells, as well as several journalists accused of being apologists for terror.

Various human rights organizations documented widespread abuses of the rights of the more than 2,000 suspected Islamists detained by the security forces and the Moroccan courts in the weeks following the attacks in Casablanca.13  Many were held for days or weeks in secret detention, where the police subjected them to various forms of ill-treatment and in some cases to torture in order to extract confessions.  The courts denied them their right to a fair hearing.   They routinely refused defense motions to call witnesses, and refused to order medical examinations of those who claimed to have been tortured. Many were tried in haste and convicted before October 2003, when legal reforms took place giving defendants the right to appeal their conviction on the basis of the facts (see above).14

On July 11, 2003, a court convicted Moustapha Alaoui, director of the Arabic-language newspaper al-Ousbou`, of “justifying acts of terrorism via a publication” and sentenced him to one year in prison, suspended, and ordered his weekly banned for three months.  The prosecutor charged that al-Ousbou` had committed a “clear-cut violation” of the 2003 anti-terror law by publishing on page one a text emanating from an unknown organization calling itself “as-Saiqa” that claimed responsibility for three of the five attacks perpetrated in Casablanca.  Alaoui was freed after spending forty-five days in prison. On August 4, 2003, Mohamed el-Hourd and Abdelmajid Bentaher, director and editor-in-chief respectively of the weekly ash-Sharq, along with Mustapha Kechnini, director of the weekly al-Hayat al-Maghribiyya, were convicted and sentenced to prison terms ranging from one to three years for “inciting violence” by having published a text by Islamist Zakaria Boughrara that allegedly praised the actions taken by the jihadist movement in Morocco. The king pardoned and freed the three journalists in January 2004.

Other continuing human rights concerns

The crackdown on suspected militants after the Casablanca bombings constituted an alarming deterioration in rights conditions.  However, it is not the only realm where violations continue to occur in Morocco, or where authorities instrumentalize the courts to serve political ends.

Freedom of assembly, association, and expression are tolerated only up to a point.  Peaceful demonstrations and sit-in protests occur frequently in Rabat, but are sometimes forbidden by the interior ministry and violently dispersed by the police.  For example, the police broke up a small protest on January 28, 2004, in Rabat against the proposed U.S.-Morocco free trade agreement. Sit-ins organized by the National Association of Unemployed College Graduates – to which the government has thus far failed to grant legal recognition – are frequently dispersed by force.  Following an April 2005 protest march by residents in the Rif region in northern Morocco to demand more post-earthquake assistance, three organizers of the march were jailed and charged with “insulting civil servants and elected officials” and “subversive behavior inciting the population to revolt.”  Police forcefully broke up a second march in the region in May 2005.

The Press Code of 2002 prohibits attacks on “the Islamic religion, the institution of the monarchy, or the integrity of national territory” (Articles 29 and 41); “integrity of national territory” is understood to refer to Morocco’s claim over the Western Sahara. Foreign publications deemed to have committed this offense can be banned by the government.  Moroccan journalists convicted of this offense face prison terms and fines, and judges can suspend their publications.

Nadia Yassine, of Justice and Charity – an Islamist formation the government has refused to recognize – went on trial on June 28,  2005, for “attacking the monarchy” by declaring that the institution did not suit Morocco and would not last much longer.  Journalist Ali Mrabet spent seven months in prison in 2003 for “insulting the king,” “undermining the monarchy,” and “endangering the integrity of national territory” for articles, interviews and cartoons that appeared in two Casablanca-based publications. In a separate case, in April 2005 – after Mohamed VI had amnestied him from prison – Mrabet was convicted of libel and banned from practicing journalism for ten years.  Mrabet had contradicted the officially held position by stating that the Sahrawis living in camps in Tindouf, Algeria were refugees rather than captives of the Polisario.  The court ruled that this assessment had defamed an obscure Moroccan association.  The decision in this case illustrates the continuing lack of independence of Moroccan courts when judging political cases.

In the disputed Western Sahara region, the presence of Moroccan security forces is heavier than elsewhere, civil liberties are more restricted, and there is less tolerance of dissent.  In 2003, authorities shut down the Western Sahara chapter of the Moroccan Forum for Truth and Equity, an independent rights organization.  The AMDH obtained legal recognition in 2005 for a chapter in the city of El-Ayoun in the Western Sahara, but only after two years of bureaucratic obstacles and delays.

In late May 2005, demonstrations in El-Ayoun turned into a sustained confrontation with police in several cities.  National and international human rights organizations accused the police of torturing and ill-treating those they arrested in connection with these demonstrations.15  Twenty-one protesters were sentenced, on appeal, to up to four years in prison, on charges of formation of a criminal gang, use of weapons, sabotage of public property and violence against public servants on duty.  In June and July, police arrested six Sahrawi human rights defenders in connection with the demonstrations, charging them with inciting the demonstrations and participating in an armed gathering.  Two of them were reportedly tortured by police while under interrogation, according to Amnesty International.16 In a separate incident in 2003, in the coastal city of Safi south of Casablanca, police tortured another human rights defender in their custody, Mohammed Rached Chrii of the AMDH.17

Positive steps

Authorities have taken some steps in response to criticism of its recent human rights record.   On December 28, 2004, the government council, headed by the prime minister, approved a law defining torture as a criminal offense. Parliament approved the measure on October 21, 2005.  This law, which is pending publication in the official bulletin, makes it easier to prosecute acts of torture.  It also subjects torturers to long prison terms and stiff fines.

In a related step, Prime Minister Driss Jettou indicated on February 22, 2005, that Morocco would withdraw its declaration relating to the U.N. Convention against Torture, where it stated that it does not recognize the competence of the Committee against Torture. He also said that Morocco would become a party to the optional protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), and withdraw its declaration on Article 14 of the International Convention for the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (CERD).  Jettou also announced plans to lift Morocco’s reservation to Article 14 of the CRC, and its replacement by a declarative explanation, to be followed by an inquiry into the possible lifting of Morocco’s substantial reservations to the CEDAW.18

Some of these pledges had been filled by the time this report went to press.  Morocco has recognized the competence of the U.N. Committee against Torture under Article 22 of the CAT but not under Article 20.  The former allows the committee to investigate complaints of torture that are submitted by individuals; the latter allows the committee to launch an inquiry upon receiving information that torture is being practiced systematically.  Morocco lifted its reservation to Article 14 of the CERD, but not yet its reservations to the CRC or the CEDAW.  Nor has it yet joined the optional protocol of the ICCPR.

In contrast to some countries where state agents have carried out “disappearances,” Morocco played a constructive role in the U.N.-sponsored committee that drafted the International Convention on the Protection of all Persons from Enforced Disappearance, approved by the United Nations (U.N.) on September 23, 2005.19  The draft convention, which applies to future cases of disappearance but not past ones, will be opened for ratification by countries once it is approved by the U.N. General Assembly. It requires states to make forced disappearances a crime in their legislation (Article 7) and to pursue the suspected perpetrators, as well as any superiors who ordered or knew about the commission of “disappearances” (Article 6).  It enumerates safeguards for those being held in detention (Article 17) and establishes a “right to know” for relatives of persons in detention (Article 24.2).

[1]Amnesty International, “The Disappeared in Morocco,” (London: Amnesty International, April 1993) MDE 29/01/93, [online]

[2]Jacques de Barrin, “L'amnistie royale pourrait décrisper la vie politique,” Le Monde (Paris), July 23, 1994.

[3] For details of Morocco’s reservations, see www.

[4]The cassation process aims at reviewing the legal application that the lower judges have given to the incriminating acts. In other words, the cassation reviews the application of law and procedure and does not review the facts.

[5] The FIDH, relying on information provided to it by nongovernmental organizations, concludes in a 2000 report that the number is at least 600. FIDH, “Les disparitions forcées au Maroc: répondre aux exigences de vérité et de justice,” November 2000, rapport hors série de la letter mensuelle de la FIDH, no. 298, p. 9, [online]  

[6]Quoted in Jacques de Barrin, “Le sort des prisonniers politiques, droits du Roi, droits de l’Homme,” Le Monde (Paris), November 30, 1990.

[7]Speech by King Hassan II on the occasion of the establishment of the ACHR, May 8, 1990, [online in French]

[8]  Associated Press, “Hassan II appele le Parlement marocain à résoudre le dossier des droits de l’Homme,” October 9, 1998.

[9]José Garçon, “Geste du Maroc pour les droits de l’Homme,” Libération (Paris), October 2, 1998.

[10]Internal regulations of the IC, issued in August 1999, [online in French]

[11]ERC, “L’expérience de l’Instance d’arbitrage indépendante pour l’indemnisation,” information sheet distributed at the National Forum on Reparations in Rabat, organized by the ERC September 30, October 1 and 2, 2005.

[12] Oral presentation at the ERC’s National Forum on Reparations, Rabat, October 1, 2005.

[13] See  Moroccan Human Rights Organization, Muhakamat ikhtal fiha mizan al-`adalah [Trials in which the scales of justice have been tipped], Rabat, November 2003, [online in Arabic]; “Morocco: Human Rights at a Crossroads,” A Human Rights Watch Report, vol. 16, no. 6(E), October 2004, [online]; Amnesty International, Morocco/Western Sahara: “Briefing to the Committee against Torture” (London: Amnesty International, November 2003) [online]; Amnesty International, “Morocco/Western Sahara: Torture in the ‘anti-terrorism’ campaign - the case of Témara detention centre” (London: Amnesty International, June 2004), [online]; International Human Rights Federation, “Les autorités marocaines à l’épreuve de terrorisme: la tentation de l’arbitraire,” February 2004, no. 379, [online in French]

[14] In November 2003, the U.N. Committee against Torture said it was concerned by “The considerable extension of the time limit for police custody, the period during which the risk of torture is greatest, both in criminal law and in anti-terrorist legislation (...)” and “the increase, according to some information, in the number of arrests for political reasons during the period under consideration, the increase in the number of detainees and prisoners in general, including political prisoners, and the increase in the number of allegations of torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, allegations implicating the National Surveillance Directorate (DST).”  Conclusions and Recommendations of the Committee against Torture, Morocco, February 5, 2004, CAT/C/CR/31/2, [online]

On November 5, 2004, after examining the fifth periodic report presented by Morocco on its compliance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the U.N. Human Rights Committee noted a number of concerns, including, “The numerous allegations of torture and ill-treatment of detainees and … the fact that the officials who are guilty of such acts are generally liable to disciplinary action only, where any sanction exists. In this context, the Committee notes with concern that no independent inquiries are conducted in police stations and other places of detention in order to guarantee that no torture or ill-treatment takes place.”  The committee also noted that “independence of the judiciary is not fully guaranteed.”  United Nations, “Human Rights Committee Concludes Eighty-Second Session,” November 5, 2004, [online]

[15] Amnesty International, “Morocco/Western Sahara: Justice Must Begin with Torture Inquiries,” June 22, 2005, MDE 29/003/2005, [online]; and the AMDH, “Rapport de la Commission d’Enquête relative aux événements de Laâyoune,” October 15, 2005.

[16]Amnesty International, “Morocco/Western Sahara: New arrests and allegations of torture of Sahrawi human rights defenders,” August 1, 2005, MDE 29/004/2005, [online]

[17] See Amnesty International, “Briefing to the Committee against Torture.”

[18]On Morocco’s reservations, see Amnesty International, “Reservations to the Convention on the Elimination

of All Forms of Discrimination against Women: Weakening the protection of women from violence

in the Middle East and North Africa region,” November 3, 2004, IOR 51/009/2004, [online]

[19]E.CN.4.2005.WG.22.WP.1.REV.4, [online]

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