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Morocco tries to reconcile painful past

A pioneering commission looking into more than 40 years of human rights abuses carried out by the Moroccan government has asked fo

Last Modified: 26 Apr 2005 10:04 GMT
The IER received a total of 34,000 applications from victims

A pioneering commission looking into more than 40 years of human rights abuses carried out by the Moroccan government has asked for an eight-month extension to complete its huge task.

The Equity and Reconciliation Commission (Instance Equite et Reconciliation, or IER for short) was formed by royal decree on 7 January 2004 in response to a recommendation submitted by the Moroccan consultative council for human rights.

According to its statute, the commission is a non-judicial entity in charge of investigating past human rights violations, perpetrated between 1956 and 1999.

It aims to secure out-of-court settlements for numerous victims of past human rights violations committed during what is known in Morocco as the "years of lead" - the period from independence in 1956 until the death of king Hasan II in 1999.

Moroccans were invited to speak openly about the trauma they had been through. A staggering 22,100 people came forward in just one month to have their experiences recorded.

However, the commission, seen by many as a ground-breaking body for the Arab world, is not mandated to identify individual perpetrators, prompting critics to say the commission lacks the teeth to be fully effective.

Task and mechanism

The commission hopes to build trust in the rule of law and the country's institutions, with the aim of preventing further violations.

One of the public hearings in the
southern city of Marrakesh

The IER will produce a historical record of responsibility for the incidents and will compensate victims. It will also propose social assistance and rehabilitation, the return of victims' bodies to their families as well as public memorials.

To do this, the IER set up three task groups; one charged with investigating missing persons, the second in charge of compensations and the third to look into research and studies, collecting and analysing data and conclusions drawn by the other groups for a final report.

The commission, headed by Idris bin Zikri, former political prisoner and former vice-president of the Moroccan Association for Human Rights, is made up of 16 members, most of them with experience in human rights activities.

IER activities

The IER organised a series of public hearings across the kingdom for victims to present their testimonies.

All were broadcast on national TV and radio in the presence of foreign journalists, social activists, human-rights representatives and trade unions.

IER president Idris bin Zikri is a
former political prisoner himself

The experience sought to restore the dignity of the victims. Alongside the public hearings, the IER also held roundtable discussions on human rights issues.

In the IER's discussion on violence as a strategy of political management, the group discussed the role of political and cultural elites in facing this phenomenon. It also examined means to guarantee that the violence will not recur.

Another debate, Reform of the Legislative, Executive and Judicial Authorities, held in March 2004, discussed projected areas of cooperation in order to impose the state of law.

IER delegations have also been visiting former detention centres to assess the magnitude of the violations. The initiative intends to locate and inspect illegal detention centres.

Victims respond

The public hearings played a pivotal role because they encouraged sectors of Moroccan society to come forward and reveal their ordeals to the public.

A source from the commission, who preferred to remain anonymous, told Aljazeera.net the commission had given a one-month deadline in January 2004 for the submission of applications. 

"At first, people did not know about the commission or did not trust it because they were scared. But everything changed when the commission organised two public hearings in the capital, Rabat, during which victims of torture testified and told their ordeals in public," the source told Aljazeera.net. 

"[The objective of the commission is to] examine without any complex and any shame, this page of our history, as a starting point to move forward in the best conditions"

King Muhammad VI of Morocco

"The commission received 22,100 applications during the given period and more than 12,000 others after. Among the challenges facing the commission is how to deal with the applications that were received after the given deadline.

"All applicants say they were tortured when imprisoned, or their family members disappeared and were never heard of later. All accusations of abuse are thoroughly and promptly investigated.

"The commission is still working on the issue of compensation and on amounts to be given to the victims.

"The official mandate of the commission ended on 12 April 2005. We have applied for an extension of eight months and have received approval in principal.

"The commission will present its findings and recommendations to the king, probably in December," the source added.

Testimonies

All the victims mentioned their detention and a culture of prisoner abuse. They told how they were tortured and sexually humiliated, and how other inmates were systematically mistreated as well.

Some said they were deprived of sleep, medical care and food; others were locked up without fair trials.

Foreigners were allowed to
attend the sessions

The worst stories came from the notorious desert prison, Tazmamart. The partially underground jail, now closed, was known in Morocco as the Home of Death.

Tazmamart victims listed numerous grievances: Unfair trials and imprisonment, stifling heat and Siberian winters in a stinking jail that was dark, dirty and infested with scorpions and mosquitoes, isolation, disease, inadequate food rations and sadistic prison guards.

Tazmamart became famous for holding the relatives of General Muhammad Ufqair, the former minister of defence, who failed to topple the late king Hasan II in his second coup attempt in 1972.

The existence of Tazmamart inmates was long denied by the state. All communication with the outside world was impossible and many inmates died of neglect and the lack of even basic medical care, while some became mentally ill as a result of mistreatment.

Praise

Human-rights organisations have applauded the IER initiative, describing it as an important step towards a new relationship between the state and the people.

The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a Washington-based organisation, said the kingdom had made important progress in human rights issues.

Amnesty International's director-general Claudio Cordone said: "We encourage this kind of approach which combines fact-finding, acknowledgment of victims' existence and compensation."

"We encourage this kind of approach which combines fact-finding, acknowledgment of victims' existence and compensation"

Claudio Cordone, Amnesty International director-general

European parliamentarian Adeline Hazan said the Moroccan commission was a unique experience in the Arab-Muslim world.

Hazan, who is in charge of human rights issues, said Morocco had embarked on a unique exceptional experience by establishing IER, which is assigned to look into past human rights abuses in total transparency and without difficulties.

Critics

Despite the break with the official silence of the past on human rights abuses, however, the commission has been criticised for not pursuing abusers through the courts.

The participants must refrain from giving out any names of abusers because there will be no legal or criminal trials involved.

Muhammad al-Bukili, from the Moroccan Human Rights Association, does not agree with the hearings.

While accepting that the idea of human rights abuse victims being able to speak publicly is a good thing, al-Bukili - himself a former political prisoner - asks: "What good will it do to just let people speak and then turn the page? Responsibility should be converted into justice.

"It is not a question of vengeance; it is nothing personal, but people who may have committed crimes against humanity should be judged publicly and fairly."

The television scheme, al-Bukili says, is nothing but "a kind of therapy to soothe a patient".

Some say torture charges should be brought and people should stand trial, while others say the commission's credibility will rest on how it confronts the present day erosion of human rights.

Advocates

In an interview with the Spanish daily El Pais, King Muhammad VI affirmed the goal of the hearings was to reconcile Morocco with its past. 

King Muhammad VI says the goal
is to reconcile with the past

The objective, he said, was to "examine, without any complex and any shame, this page of our history, as a starting point to move forward in the best conditions".

To IER president bin Zikri, the creation of the body by the king shows the trust the monarch has in the ability of the Moroccan people to reconcile with the past.

"The commission is preparing exhaustive judicial studies in order to come out with recommendations and proposals that will be the basis of a series of laws aiming to consolidate the rule of law and guarantee that human rights violations will not occur again," bin Zikri said.

He added the commission would gather the opinions of the civil society and public opinion to reach recommendations for reform, and to redress the damages committed in the past.

Abd al-Aziz Binnani, an IER member, said: "This is the first time a debate on the penal policy is opened to the different components of the civil society, and important justice issues are evoked in transparency."

Source:
Aljazeera
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