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Morocco Clamours for Justice

CASABLANCA, Apr 22 2012 (IPS) - A government plan to reform Morocco’s dilapidated justice system, the details of which are still a mystery to the general public, has become the subject of much scepticism, especially from justice professionals around the country.

Justice Minister Mustapha Erramid told journalists on Apr. 6, “The national plan on justice reform will be launched this month,” but failed to specify what the reforms would entail.

Huge swathes of the population have long called for sweeping reforms of Morocco’s corrupt justice system. Following a wave of protests on Feb. 20, 2011, a group of magistrates that would later become the Club of the Magistrates of Morocco (CMC) created a Facebook page to address judges’ long-standing resentment about the clampdown on freedom of expression.

Furthermore, they claimed, the law allowed them no clear structure of professional organisation.

Last August, shortly after the CMC went viral, the police forbade judges from entering the premises on which they were scheduled to hold their association’s founding assembly. Undeterred, the judges simply held their meeting in the street, under the harsh summer sun.

On the virtual page and out in the street, the judges made their demands clear: freedom of expression and their own independent association, two requests that the country’s new constitution, approved on Jul. 1, 2011, had already acknowledged.

Still, the gap between rights on paper and rights in practice is very wide.

In a press declaration issued on Feb. 29, the president of the CMC in Casablanca, Abdelaziz El Baâli, said, ” (Improving) the material and social situation of the magistrates is a (necessary step) towards reform”, referring to the fact that Morocco’s magistrates have not had a salary increase since 1996.

Tensions are running high between the executive and judicial branches of the government, with the CMC threatening to “resort to unprecedented protests” and fixing May 15 as the final deadline for the government to answer judges’ demands.

The ‘Assabah’ daily newspaper reported, without clearly citing its sources, that the reform plan contains 13 strategic removals of existing laws, 28 action plans, and 174 measures all aimed at renewing the country’s legal infrastructure and computerising and modernising the judicial administration.

For citizens, these big promises say nothing about the justice system, which, they believe, must first and foremost be purged of corruption.

“A corrupt justice (system) cannot contribute anything to the fight against corruption,” Mohammed Jallab Elbouamri, a 55-year-old citizen from Casablanca, told IPS.

Various members of the political opposition share this view. Fouzia El Bayed, deputy of the Constitutional Union (UC), which holds 17 of the 379 seats in parliament, told IPS that Morocco’s legal system is blighted by malpractice and the abuse of power, which have eroded citizens’ trust in the rule of law.

Just last month, police arrested a judge in Tangier, 300 kilometres north of Casablanca, for corruption. According to the Justice Minister, the judge in question was caught red-handed receiving a sum of 70,000 dirham (approximately 663 euros) from a citizen.

Erramid revealed that the sting operation had been organised under the official direction of the Justice Ministry, following a tip-off from a conscientious citizen.

Simply increasing judges’ salaries, therefore, will not lead the way out of the crisis, El Bayed said, since the sector also suffers from a major shortage in human resources.

“We need more than 2,600 new magistrates to be able to handle the (ever-increasing) number of cases. At present, the country has just 3,400 magistrates handling three million cases every year.”

She stressed that it would also be necessary to do away with “administrative centralism and set up a new penal policy, whose philosophy is based on the realisation of justice.”

Anass Saadoun, another member of CMC, has published several articles on justice reform in various local newspapers, where he stresses that Moroccan society must abandon the idea that judges are entitled to a luxurious lifestyle, beyond the reach of their modest incomes. This widespread perception, he says, has laid the groundwork for corruption throughout the legal system.

Though hope in the efficacy of judicial reform still persists among the political class, most ordinary citizens are pessimistic, to say the least.

”We all know that the barons of dirty money manipulate everything in this country. They are corrupt and sabotage all those who resist them,” Abderrafie Lwali, a 27-year-old citizen from Asilah, 230 kilometres north of Casablanca, told IPS.

The country will have to act fast in order to withstand winds from the Arab Spring that are still blowing around the kingdom. Thus far the Moroccan government has been able to appease its citizens with satisfactory reforms, thereby warding off more incendiary protests; but the judges’ rancour will not be easily abated.

“We are no longer in the era of miracles,” acknowledged Elbouamri. Rather, people are counting on the balance of power between the government and its citizens to bring about much-needed change.

Like others, he believes reforms are a matter of political will. Currently, the government “has the necessary support to lead (an overhaul) of the justice system.”

Whether it will use this support for positive change remains to be seen.

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