Crime & Justice, Headlines, Human Rights, Middle East & North Africa

DEATH PENALTY-MOROCCO: Findings Provoke Calls for Guarantees

Abderrahim El Ouali

CASABLANCA, Morocco, Jun 2 2008 (IPS) - Two recently discovered mass graves and a still-secret list of five other places where victims of other alleged extra-judicial killings lie, has shocked rights activists here and raised questions about the genuineness of the process of national reconciliation which was to be crowned by the abolition of the death penalty.

The largest mass grave was discovered in March in the city of Fez, 250 kilometres north of Casablanca, according to the authorities. The bodies – reportedly numbering more than 100 – were unearthed in the city’s Jnane Sbil park. Human rights activists believe they were shot when the army intervened to break up rioting during a general strike over hunger and poverty on Dec 14, 1990.

But the authorities have suggested that the bodies date from a much earlier period.

After the Fez riots, a parliamentary enquiry concluded that five civilians had died in the riots and 40 policemen were wounded.

In April, a second mass grave with 16 bodies, including a child of 12 years of age, was discovered in a civil protection barracks building in Nador, 590 kilometres north of Casablanca, according to the authorities.

Human rights campaigners have suggested they died when the army clashed with protesters in Nador and several other northern cities in January 1984. The demonstrators were expressing discontent over food prices and the economic marginalisation of the region.

Following the two discoveries, Mohamed Sabbar, president of the non-governmental organisation Forum for Truth and Equity (FTE) told the newspaper Almassae on May 4 that he had a list of five other places where mass graves were to be found.

The press reports on the mass grave findings have led to intense scrutiny of the work of the Equity and Reconciliation Board (IER) set up by King Mohamed VI in January 2004. This was given the task of investigating such extra-judicial killings and other human rights abuses under the young king’s father, Hassan II, who ruled from 1961 to 1999. The period is commonly referred to as the “Years of Lead”, a reference to its extreme brutality.

The IER concluded its work at the end of 2005. It stated the number of extra-judicial killings during Hassan II’s rule numbered 592. Many torture victims were identified and allowed to broadcast their accounts on television, although not permitted to name their torturers. Hundreds of victims of human rights abuses were paid damages.

The IER recommended to King Mohamed VI the abolition of the death penalty. This was clearly to be a demonstration to the public that there had been a break with the past and the fundamental right to life would be enshrined in the law.

The IER also called on the King to ratify the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court which was established in 2002. Although the Court would not be able to investigate and punish past state crimes in Morocco, the proposal was clearly seen as a guarantee against future human rights abuses. The Court could always be turned to hold to account individuals – including the King – when national courts were unwilling or unable to act in such cases as extra-judicial killings.

But up to now, the Moroccan authorities have not abolished the death penalty or ratified the Rome statute.

“Abolition of the death penalty is required,” Driss Lagrini, professor of public law at the Alkadi Iad University in Marrakech, told IPS after the discovery of the mass graves. Some 500 crimes could still be punished by the death penalty which was used “from time to time”, he noted.

The state needed to show clearly that “there has been a turning of the page of history”. “The discovery of the bodies in mass graves reveals just how serious the violations of human rights were in the recent modern history of Morocco,” he said.

He added that the IER had faced “some difficulties”. It was not a court of law and did not have the power to pass judgements for the crimes that had been committed in the past.

“The state needs to show a serious will to abolish the death penalty,” Abdeljawad Achehbar, founding president of the Communication and Reform Association (CRA), told IPS. He agreed that the discoveries of the mass graves illustrated how grossly the right to life had been violated in the recent past and those guilty had never been brought to justice. Guarantees were now needed that this would never happen again.

Achehbar also called on the state to “show its good intentions” by revealing the locations of other mass graves. “The state knows where they are. Its servants shot the bullets and dug the graves,” he said.

He suggested that if this did not happen, the public should take to mass action to bring to light what had not been revealed by the IER. “A caravan for truth to discover these mass graves should be organised to put pressure on the officials,” he declared.

The call for the official abolition of the death penalty was also echoed by the journalist and writer Mohamed Nabil. “Abolition is necessary, but it is not enough.” The other recommendations of the IER also needed to be adopted, he said, clearly with the ratification of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court in mind.

What has added to the concern of several human rights activists calling vocally for the abolition of the death penalty is the possibility of the authorities using again harsh measures to stifle dissent and crush demonstrations violently with loss of life at a time of rising prices.

“No one can be sure this will not happen again in these times of increasing social tension and high living costs,” Ahmed Hidaoui, a political commentator, told IPS, voicing this concern.

The last national strike in protest over the high cost of living was called on May 21, but no clashes between the police and strikers were reported.

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