Middle East News and Opinions
Morocco’s Justice and Reconciliation Commission by Susan Slyomovics
April 4, 2005
(Susan Slyomovics is a professor of anthropology at MIT and author of The Performance of Human Rights in Morocco [University of Pennsylvania Press, 2005].)
From independence in 1956 through the 1990s, the Moroccan state sent thousands of dissidents and political opponents to prison. During these decades, known to Moroccans as the “black years,” the act of expressing an “unauthorized opinion” could earn years of arbitrary detention. Political opponents of King Hassan II’s regime, many of them leftists or Islamists, were often “disappeared” in the manner of dictatorships in Chile and Argentina and tortured or killed while in state custody. In 1990, Hassan II established an Advisory Council on Human Rights to begin the rehabilitation of his regime’s reputation for repression. These official efforts intensified after the king’s death in 1999. Anxious to burnish Morocco’s new image as a developing democracy, and pushed at every stage by vocal and organized survivors of the prisons, as well as Morocco’s vibrant community of human rights activists, King Mohammed VI has endeavored to fulfill his father’s 1994 promise to “turn the page definitively” on the rampant abuses of the past.
On January 7, 2004, the king appointed Driss Benzekri to head the newly formed Justice and Reconciliation Commission. Benzekri, himself a former political prisoner (1974-91) from the outlawed Marxist-Leninist group Ila al-Amam, presides over 16 commissioners, eight drawn from the Advisory Council on Human Rights (in Arabic, al-Majlis al-Istishari li-Huquq al-Insan or in French, Conseil Consultative des Droits de l’Homme) plus eight nationally recognized experts in law, medicine and women’s rights. Among them are other former political prisoners and victims of torture and “disappearance.”
According to the commission’s multilingual website, its mandate to investigate human rights violations begins with independence and ends with the establishment of the 1999 Indemnity Commission, an earlier attempt to redress 43 years of the regime’s war against its own citizens. Both the Indemnity Commission and the Justice and Reconciliation Commission accord blanket immunity from criminal prosecution to perpetrators and victims alike. The competence of the commission is non-judicial (dhat ikhtisasat ghayr qada’iyya). Like Chile and Argentina before it, Morocco chooses to circumscribe justice, eschewing punishment to concentrate on identifying, verifying and reporting the process of uncovering the truth about arbitrary detention and secret torture sites.
The story of forcible disappearance, torture and deaths during police custody or in secret prisons is therefore told about the past from the perspective of the present and entirely in the victims’ voices. By the filing deadline of February 13, 2004, over 22,000 requests for reparation had arrived at the commission’s headquarters in the Moroccan capital of Rabat. Despite the limited purview of the commission, it is collecting an enormous volume of testimonies and depositions that constitute an important resource for counteracting the repression of Morocco’s “black years” with transparency and accountability.
Reactions to the state-mandated Justice and Reconciliation Commission (in Arabic, Hay’at al-Insaf wa al-Musalaha or in French, Instance Equité et Reconciliation) are mixed. Government brutality to suppress rural armed uprisings and urban riots was directed against a panoply of actors, from political parties to trade unions, each of which has complex reservations about the state’s attempt to “turn the page” on the past without penalizing perpetrators of abuses. Mustapha Laamrani, a veteran of Morocco’s national liberation army, gave testimony about his torture as part of the liquidation of nationalist fighters by Moroccan leaders of the Istiqlal Party eager to consolidate power in the immediate post-independence years. Although many such political figures grew to know well police station and prison interiors, as yet no member of the Istiqlal leadership has stepped forward to confront muddy histories as victims and perpetrators, not even those minimally complicit with the regime’s violations.
Other critics note the content of Morocco’s anti-terrorism law, Number 03-03, swiftly enacted by Parliament in reaction to multiple bomb attacks in Casablanca on May 16, 2003 that targeted foreign and Moroccan Jewish sites and killed 46 people. Like the United States, Morocco makes claims in regard to a global war on terrorism that place their respective nations’ safety above various legal rights. The Moroccan version, now integrated into the country’s penal code as Article 218, defines terrorism as any premeditated act, individual or collective, whose purpose is “attacks against public order through terror or violence.” This phrasing is reminiscent of French colonial-era statutes that enabled the capricious incarceration of generations of Moroccans. Based on profiles of the perpetrators, in the wake of the 2003 bombings waves of arrests have targeted specific groups, primarily those belonging to organizations labeled Islamist. There is a distinct echo of the past when the Moroccan government acknowledges that more than 1,000 people are detained incommunicado under anti-terrorism laws. Human rights groups double and treble the government numbers.
Moreover, newspapers link US and Moroccan anti-terrorist efforts in a macabre fashion. According to Amnesty International and press reports, detainees held by the US as unlawful combatants at Guantánamo Bay were transported to a Moroccan secret detention center for questioning under torture. Many Moroccans deplore their country’s contribution to the war on terrorism, one in which the international community recognizes Moroccan expertise in torture. Those who point to continuities between the “black years” of 1956-1999 and contemporary government abuses assert strong opposition to the efficacy of any truth commission. Security forces operate secretly and with government protection, and retrograde laws prohibiting “attacks against the monarchy” have led to prison terms for prominent journalists whose newspaper articles investigate royal family matters. The most famous case concerns Ali Lmrabet, editor of the magazines Demain and Doumane, who was sentenced to three years in June 2003 for “insulting the king’s person” and “undermining the monarchy.” Lmrabet had reported that one of the king’s palaces was to be sold to tourist developers.
Even as the new commission meets and passes judgment upon the truths of pre-1999 brutalities, new victims are being created daily by the unchanged, untouchable legal, police and prison apparatus. These new victims fall outside the commission’s mandate and compromise its mission.
Beginning in Rabat on December 21-22, 2004, followed by Figuig, Rachidia and Khenifra, with upcoming sessions planned for El Hoceima in the north and Laayoun in the south, the Justice and Reconciliation Commission is holding a series of public hearings featuring victims’ oral testimonies broadcast on Moroccan television and posted on the commission website. Although no polls on the numbers of viewers or the effects of the hearings are available, Moroccan newspapers report the profound emotional impact on the viewing public. Women’s accounts are deemed especially moving, perhaps because many are pronounced not in literary Arabic but in darija (Moroccan Arabic dialect) or Amazigh/Berber, the two languages spoken and understood by Moroccans. During the televised hearings, speakers could not name their torturers. Given the extensive literature by political prisoners and numerous articles listing torturers that are published regularly in the Moroccan press, this prohibition reflects less the commission’s desire to protect the rights of due process, even for high officials known to have been torturers, than the immense power and reach of television.
Impunity, or the Moroccan state’s disinclination to prosecute or even name the perpetrators, has lead to a parallel series of public hearings by various non-governmental organizations in Morocco and Europe. In Rabat on February 12, 2005, the Moroccan Association of Human Rights, despite little publicity, heard testimony from nine people challenging the mandate of the commission to remain silent about perpetrators’ names and to avoid human rights abuses committed since Mohammed VI ascended the throne in 1999. Speakers such as El Ghalia Idjini from Laayoun described her own rape as part of systematic sexual attacks against thousands of Sahrawi women, while the Italian wife of Aboulkacem Britel, an Islamist detained following the Casablanca bomb attacks, spoke as well. So did Maria Charaf, wife of Amine Tahani, a Marxist political prisoner who died in 1985 as a result of torture in Derb Moulay Cherif, Casablanca’s secret detention center. Charaf had filed for indemnities during the 1999 commission. Currently, she is pursuing a civil action through the Moroccan courts.
Reconciliation occupies a special place in the title, competence and powers of the commission, whose mandate is “to develop and promote a culture of dialogue and to establish foundations for reconciliation directed toward consolidating the democratic transition in our country, reinforce building the rule of law and implanting values of the culture of citizenship and human rights.” Unlike the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the Moroccan one so far has not talked much about reconciliation. Moroccan perpetrators are under no compulsion to step forward because reconciliation possesses no legal standing to request amnesty or avert prosecution; it is a moral principle incumbent on the victim, not the torturer, as part of a political compromise. The “culture of human rights” and “rule of law,” phrases expressing praiseworthy international norms, do not respond to one witness’s cry from the heart: “With whom do you want me to reconcile?”
While debates rage about the role of the commission in deflecting responsibility away from the government, or worse, its capacity to undermine the rule of law by legitimating the powerlessness of the Moroccan criminal justice system to pursue prosecutions, it is noteworthy that the important daily work of the commission continues with little fanfare. Each request for reparation, mailed or presented in person to the commission, produces a file. Each file adds to the overview of Moroccan history by contributing to the computerized database about violations and torture now accessible according to date, region and even torturers’ names. Ordered chronologically, the archive begins with section “A” to designate immediate post-independence political events from 1956 to 1960, moves to section “B” chronicling the 1958-1959 uprisings in the northern Rif region, and proceeds down the decades until the death of King Hassan II, the endpoint of the commission’s mandate. Exceptions to the decade-by-decade record are “AH” for the region of the Sahara, where violations among the Sahrawis know no specific date constraints, and “AJ,” a catchall category of individual cases not linked to specific years in which uprisings, mass political trials or groups deemed dangerous by the regime are categorized.
While the main working archive of 22,000 files owes its existence and formation to applicants and deponents who met the 2004 commission deadline, more data derive from two additional research archives that consist of more than 8,000 files from the 1999 commission plus those who missed February 13, 2004 deadline (with some overlapping cases) but still filed. At the Rabat headquarters, follow-up procedures by commission statement-takers include additional oral interviews, many audiotaped and videotaped single or group testimony sessions immediately transcribed, and internal videotaped commission sessions organized thematically in the form of day-long witness testimony on such topics as prisons, secret detention centers and deaths of famous political martyrs.
In addition, commission note-takers travel to the applicant’s home, and teams of field workers are sent for several weeks to regions notoriously hard hit by human rights abuses. During January 2005, 20 commission researchers resided in villages throughout Azilal province, the Berber/Tamazight-speaking Middle Atlas tribal region, where anti-government uprisings resulted in devastating army reprisals. The 1999 Indemnity Commission had introduced Berber speakers to the vocabulary of “dahaya,” or victims. The 2004-2005 team of commission investigators report that inhabitants dubbed them “Ait Ta’assufat,” the tribe of arbitrary violations, suggesting sardonically that interviewers were there either to uncover or perpetrate the rule of the arbitrary.
Government interviewers faced multiple problems in assessing the stories of individual victims when they were detached from the layered history of revolts that characterized a state of war between the monarchy and this Berber region. Moreover, depositions and forms mailed to the commission had been mass-produced by official village scribes (katib umumi) who wrote in literary Arabic on behalf of an illiterate or non-Arabic-speaking population. Both scribe and victim documented abuses in the most general way without dates of imprisonment or names of prisons or torturers, and the depositions were especially silent concerning the subject of rape. The commission’s extended sojourn in Azilal resulted in several thousand more applications filed past the deadline, but with more precise claims describing torture, arbitrary detention, state expropriation of goods, collective punishment and sexual assault, thereby raising the possibility of rape as a military tactic against the population.
For the moment, although Morocco’s Justice and Reconciliation Commission is expected to request an extension to present their findings and recommendations, two crucial remedies are offered. The first is financial reparation in keeping with the majority of victims’ preference, checked off in the commission forms, for indemnification over court cases, tribunals or memorializations. One-time, lump sum payments to victims are envisioned, because all concerned lack confidence in the Moroccan bureaucracy’s ability to disburse efficiently and without corruption the monthly payments that would otherwise be preferred. Instead of collective indemnification, the commission could recommend rehabilitating targeted regions with roads and other infrastructure and transforming detention centers into community centers.
Second, what appears to be a minimal commission accomplishment — collecting and tabulating witness testimonies by the enormous number of Moroccans eligible for reparations — will prove to be its most powerful legacy. Such descriptively ahistorical, yet powerful accumulations of testimony are advocated by José Zalaquett, a lawyer and member of the Chilean Truth Commission: “I would like to draw the distinction between revealing the truth about secret crimes and interpreting the political processes that led to such situations. The distinction between fact and interpretation has become very important in the working of truth commissions. They should largely concentrate on facts, which may be proved, whereas differences about historical interpretations will always exist. The report can make recommendations by pointing to the immediate context of the atrocities, but not to the remote context. This is not the place for an historical analysis of class struggles.”
Zalaquett argues for a legal, positivist approach anchored by the research imperative of hearing testimony combined with additional empirical evidence in government archives, when made available. Truth comes about through small, detailed steps, Zalaquett and the Moroccan commission imply, that reconstruct the world of perpetrators as well as reconstruct victims’ lives through investigation, acknowledgment and indemnification. In this way, a truth commission need not preempt punishment, but may precede civil suits or even criminal prosecutions. To the criticism that Morocco has experienced no regime change or transition to democracy that heralded the creation of other internationally acclaimed truth commissions, the Moroccan archive claims to be laying a foundation for a society that is attempting to correct itself based on the fact of victim testimonies. Most evident is the remarkably high quality of researchers, interviewers, investigators, note-takers, archivists, psychiatrists and medical staff (many themselves eligible to claim reparation) that attests to and underpins a necessary, future renewal of social science research in Morocco.
Testimony and archiving are the main processes of the commission to narrate human rights violations and to offer narratives of change and justice. Morocco’s commission controls the circumstances of public testimony vigilantly and coercively but less so the relationship between the archive and acts of torture and disappearance. The hope is that the final commission reports, due by the end of 2005 if not before, will answer questions of what happened, speculate on why it happened and usher in a culture of transparency by pointing to those responsible. Their identities are housed, but not hidden, in the archive, open to victims but also to future historians and researchers.
Skeptics who point to the anti-terrorism legislation or the circumscribed mandate of the Justice and Reconciliation Commission raise important questions about the sincerity of the Moroccan state’s commitment to human rights. Nonetheless, victims who testify to atrocities, NGO activists who name perpetrators and the archiving function of the commission itself all evince a belief in human rights work as a rational and practical endeavor — not simply a means of beautifying the regime in the eyes of the international community. When ordinary Moroccans share this belief, then the act of documenting abuses will diminish the effects of a century in which rights have been systematically trampled on by colonial domination and indigenous repression.
For background on Moroccan efforts to redress wrongs of the past, see Susan Slyomovics, “A Truth Commission for Morocco,” in Middle East Report 218 (Spring 2001). The article is accessible online at www.merip.org/mer/mer218/218_slymovics.html.
See also Susan Slyomovics, “No Buying Off the Past: Moroccan Indemnities and the Opposition,” in Middle East Report 229 (Winter 2003). The article is accessible online at www.merip.org/mer/mer229/229_slyomovics.html.
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