Moroccan magazine editor Ali L'Mrabit looked pale but jubilant as he walked out of Sale prison a free man.
A member of the new Justice and Reconciliation Committee called it "an historic day for Morocco" and "a turning point in the history of human rights in the country".
Supporters queued up to kiss L'Mrabit and congratulate him on the Royal Pardon, which saw his three-year prison sentence cut short after just eight months.
Since his conviction in May 2003, the case of the satirical journalist imprisoned for "insulting the King" with cartoons and articles lampooning the royal family, has become a cause celebre for critics of Morocco’s human rights record.
While US Secretary of State Colin Powell publicly praised King Muhammad VI for his "bold" democratic reforms, in private the United States, neighbouring Spain, and Morocco’s closest ally France, were all expressing concern over the jailing of the journalist.
The announcement of the royal pardon came as Morocco’s newly formed Justice and Reconciliation Committee began the work of sifting through six thousand cases of suspected "disappearances" or torture at the hands of the police.
"Disappearance" is the euphemism used to refer to the arbitrary imprisonments of Moroccans during the murkier years in the reign of King Hasan II (1961 – 1999). This committee could prove to be the turning point for Morocco’s human rights.
The remit of the Committee is not to bring to justice the perpetrators in the cases of torture or illegal detention before it. Nor will the committee deal with any case which occurred later than 1998.
King Muhammad VI is aiming to
liberalise his country
In other words, it stops short of handling complaints of state-perpetrated human rights violations during the reign of the current King.
However, the Committee does aim "to establish the truth and obtain financial compensation for victims and their families", says Committee head and former dissident Idriss Benzekri.
Its remit may be limited, but there are high hopes for what it can achieve. King Muhammad VI himself believes it will "heal Morocco’s wounds" and "reconcile Moroccans with their history".
However, says Latifa Jbabdi, an outspoken human rights activist and the only woman on the committee, "it’s about more than laying history to rest".
Even if no one is brought to account, "establishing what really happened, and compensating victims is a guarantee for the future", says Jbabdi, "a guarantee that human rights will be respected in Morocco".
"Just as their imprisonment was political, so too is there pardon. Each prisoner has been chosen to placate one section of disgruntled Moroccan society or international opinion"
The royal pardon of Ali L'Mrabit and 32 other political prisoners was a message of the King’s personal support to the Justice and Reconciliation Committee, announced Justice Minister Muhammad Bu Zubaa.
Jbabdi believes the Royal stamp of approval should certainly make the committee’s difficult task a little easier.
As for reconciling Moroccans with their history, the royal pardon had something for everyone.
"The commission will be in charge of pursuing the out-of-court settlement of past human rights abuses related to forced disappearances and arbitrary detention. It will also have to complete, within an agreed time-frame, the just and equitable rehabilitation of victims"
Moroccan Royal Office
One political commentator who preferred to remain anonymous said, "Just as their imprisonment was political, so too is their pardon. Each prisoner has been chosen to placate one section of disgruntled Moroccan society or international opinion."
International human rights organisations and the national Moroccan Association for Human Rights (AMDH) are happy with the pardon of several of their members. Algeria will be soothed by the release of the young Islamists convicted for arms smuggling across the border.
Moreover, with the issue of the disputed Western Sahara once again due for scrutiny at the United Nations, the international community will be contented to see two Saharawi freedom activists included in the royal pardon.
But while he accepted his freedom and basked in the limelight, Ali L'Mrabit, has refused to accept his pardon from the King. “I am not pardoned because I have never considered myself a prisoner,” said L'Mrabit.
“I considered myself to have been a legal hostage. It is I who should be pardoning the state or the palace,” he added.
“I am not pardoned because I have never considered myself a prisoner"
A spokesperson for Moroccan Human Rights Group AMDH, Bin Abd al-Salam, said the organisation was "well satisfied" with the royal pardon, but questioned the criteria by which eligible prisoners had been chosen. Some members of AMDH were released while several others remain in prison.
Bin Abd al-Salam also warned that there was still much work to be done on human rights. "There are many more political prisoners in Moroccan jails," he said.
The royal pardon was not just a sign of support to the Justice and Reconciliation Committee. It was also a timely message, coinciding neatly with Prime Minister Idriss Jettu’s official visit to the United States, the ally Morocco is most intent on pleasing.
According to senior diplomats in Rabat, Morocco needed to show that the country has turned a human rights corner in 2004. It was not just the case of Ali L'Mrabit that was damaging Morocco’s reputation abroad last year.
Human rights groups expressed concern that under the new anti-terrorism law defendants were being tried in batches, sometimes given just fifteen minutes each for their defence.
Three teenage girls were detained without charges for almost three weeks before they were allowed to see their mothers.
L'Mrabit's release raises hopes
for better human rights
But how deep does this newfound commitment to human rights go?
A spokesperson for the Forum for Truth and Justice – which has often been the human rights organisation most critical of the state – is positive. "The political will to address human rights abuses carried out by the state has now been expressed at the highest level," says Khadija Ruissi.
"But at the practical level, the practice of torture and arbitrary arrest is still going on. This resistance needs to be addressed if anything is really to change," she added.
If King Muhammad VI is to be successful in his efforts "to uphold human rights as a culture and as an attitude" in Morocco, he will have his work cut out, starting with his own government.
Justice Minister Bu Zubaa less than three months ago dismissed Amnesty International’s concern over complaints of torture in Moroccan prisons, saying, "It is common place for terrorists to claim their statement was obtained by force."
Less than two months ago a delegation of the Moroccan government presented its own findings on torture and arrests to the United Nations Committee Against Torture (CAT), with whom it is a signatory.
"The political will to address human rights abuses carried out by the state has now been expressed at the highest level"
spokesperson, Forum for Truth and Justice
The subsequent CAT report commends new "remarkable" efforts to educate and inform civil servants, especially those working in prisons, of human rights principles.
However, the CAT appears concerned there was no indication the Moroccan authorities and judiciary were following up on "reports of torture, even when verified by the Independent Committee for Arbitration".
The CAT report also questions the number of deaths in Moroccan custody and the number of politically motivated arrests. The report recommends that torture be clearly prohibited, even when it is ordered by superiors or public authority.
The report is worrying to read, seeming to indicate a culture in which torture and human rights abuses are part of police work.
However, even the Truth and Justice Forum is hopeful the new Commission for Justice and Reconciliation might change that.