The "Leaden Years" in Morocco

Public Hearings – Educative but No Blame Applied

Ever since 1956, thousands of political prisoners suffered physical and psychological torture. Now a Truth Commission has made it possible for the victims to talk about their experiences - but without charging the perpetrators. Yassin Adnan reports

Photo: Larissa Bender
The hearings in Morocco have not - unlike in other countries - led to a replacement of the old system or even to political change

​​The public hearings in which victims testify to the human rights abuses which were carried out during the "leaden years" in Morocco have evoked great interest in the Arab and international media. But the interest in these hearings, which started in December 2004 and are being organised by the Commission for Justice and Reconciliation, is only the tip of an iceberg.

The Commission was called into existence by King Mohammad VI on January 7, 2004, and it has attracted great attention.The Truth Commission, which is regarded as an alternative legal body, has been trying to get hold of documentation, either from within Morocco or from elsewhere, to determine the nature, duration and extent of the human rights abuses which were committed between 1956, when the country gained its independence, and 1999. It's also examining the files of 22,272 people who have complained of human rights abuses such as arbitrary imprisonment, deportation, abduction and "disappearance."

The way to reconciliation

The tasks of the Commission include hearing personal testimony from the victims and undertaking appropriate research in official archives in order to get closer to the truth. It also arranges for damages for material harm, emotional distress and non-material effects of maltreatment to compensate for the suffering of the victims or their family.

As well as dealing with compensation for those who were victims of arbitrary imprisonment, abductions and similar illegal actions, the Commission also ensures the psychological and physical rehabilitation of the victims and helps them to deal with the administrative, professional and legal problems which arise when victims of abduction re-emerge or prisoners are released.

The requirement of this work have led the Truth Commission to involve a hundred experts in addition to their own staff, in order to support the preparation for the public hearings. The hearings began on December 21 and 22, 2004, in Rabat, and continued in Al-Rashidiya, Khenifra and Marrakesh. There will also be sessions in Al-Hasima and Al-Ouyoun.

The hearings are carried live on Moroccan radio and television, and victims of all ages, of different political backgrounds, and from different internment camps have already testified. Those testifying are required to accept the Commission's code of conduct, which says that the names of those responsible for human rights abuses may not be made public during the hearing. The Commission is not a legal body, and therefore does not have the power to bring individuals to justice.

The difficulty of drawing a line under the past

The first hearing in Rabat was attended by a large number of official representatives: the prime minister, the speaker of the parliament, the minister of justice, the adviser to the king, the leaders of the political parties, members of the human rights council, journalists from national and international media, as well as activists from civil society and human rights organisations. It showed the willingness of all those involved to examine the past before they can draw a line under it.

This involvement with the past has led many to an awareness of how difficult this chapter of recent Moroccan history is, and how far human dignity was disregarded in these "leaden years". The testimony of the witnesses was for many a painful confrontation with the past.

One witness, Rashid Al-Manouzi, told of his own experience, but also spoke about the consequences for his family and friends. They suffered various forms of repression and exemplary punishment. Their suffering continues to this day, they still do not know what happened to his brother Hussein Al-Manouzi, who was abducted in Tunisia in 1972.

Al-Manouzi told how he'd been arrested in 1970 as he was on the way to his high school to take his graduation exams. He was taken to the notorious Maulay al-Sharif prison where he was subjected to physical and psychological torture, including sleep deprivation and sexual abuse. After he was released he was subjected to such harassment that he felt he had to leave his native land. He lived in exile for 25 years.

Saadallan Saleh told how he was arrested after the events of April 16, 1963, together with other members of the "Union of People's Power". He described in detail the physical and psychological torture to which he was subjected – for example, how he was forced to sit on a glass bottle.

Conditions in the women's prisons

Women were treated just like men, and their tormenters were just as cruel. Marie Al-Zouini told how she was arrested at her family home in Marrakesh in June 1977 directly after a student demonstration. Once in prison, the fact that she was a woman was ignored: like other women prisoners, she was forced to use a man's name. Al-Zouini became "Abdel Monem".

In her testimony she said she was forced to suffer many kinds of psychological torture. She and her comrades, who were then between 18 and 22 years old, were repeatedly humiliated. Their food was deliberately contaminated with insects and their cells were left uncleaned, even during their menstrual periods.

Writing Moroccan history anew

These are just some of the examples of the deeply moving testimonies given by witnesses during the hearings, which were carried live on Moroccan television. Mark Freeman of the International Centre for Transitional Justice describes these hearings as the most impressive of their kind in the world.

These brave and audacious hearings mark a development in recent Moroccan history which, unlike in other countries, has not led to a replacement of the old system or even to political change. As it has from the start, the process continues to take place within the existing political system.

Moroccan experts see the significance of these hearings and the other activities of the Truth Commission mainly in the creation of an awareness of the urgent need to rewrite Moroccan history, after decades in which the official version has been dominant and no other versions have been allowed to exist.

The hearings, they believe, also have educational value, since they have an influence on public opinion, on the views of decision makers in the government, on future generations, and thus on the political culture of the country.

Criticism from human rights organisations

But there are some weak points in this process which have been criticised by many rights groups. The Moroccan "Symposium for Truth and Justice" disapproves of the fact that the victims are invited as guests of the hearings, but they are not allowed to name those responsible for their suffering.

The Symposium also wants the television transmissions of the hearings to be at a time when they will reach a wider public. Currently the hearings are shown at six in the evening.The Symposium also doubts that the Truth Commission can really reach its objectives as long as those responsible for the serious human rights abuses of the past still hold important positions of authority in the country.

This is an aspect which is also criticised by the Moroccan Human Rights Organisation. The hearings are not really able to uncover the truth and bring about reconciliation as long as the victims are not allowed to name their tormentors. The Organisation has decided to mount public hearings under the title "Unrestricted Testimony for the Truth."

The first hearings took place on February 12 in the Bahnini Hall in Rabat. A list was published with 21 names of people who had been guilty of torture during the "leaden years." Among the most prominent are General Oufkir and the former interior minister, Idriss Al-Basri. Observers believe that these hearings will not compete with those of the Truth Commission; they will rather support and expand on them, since they concentrate on an examination of the documentary evidence and the testimony of witnesses.

That way they can close the gaps in the work of the Commission, whose work is restricted to the period before 1999. The Human Rights Organisation is mainly interested in uncovering human rights abuses in the period after 1999, and to find out who was responsible.

Moving the process into the courts

It's the task of the justice system to make judicial decisions about individual cases. Aiman Tahani, chairman of the leftwing organisation "Forwards", has called on the judicial authorities in Casablanca to open a trial to uncover the circumstances of his father's death. Amin Tahani died in the mid-1980s as a result of the torture he received in the police post of Maulay Al-Sharif prison.

Khadija Al-Rouissi, sister of the abducted Abdulhaq al-Rouissi and member of the "Coordinating Committee for the Relatives of Victims with an Uncertain Fate," thinks that this step is being taken too soon. It will take several months to examine and evaluate the court files, and experts and judges will have to be involved. Trials are expensive and have to be financed.

"Of course people have the right to ask for their files to be handed over to the court," says Al-Rouissi. "But the files have to be properly examined and evaluated first." That's why she's not happy that the Moroccan courts, which are known not to be independent, should get the hurriedly prepared files of the victim Amin Tahani.

Al-Rouissi, who is close to the Truth Commission, also criticises the fact that the Moroccan Human Rights Organisation insists on speaking about the responsibility of individuals. "Naming names is important," she says, "but it's got to happen in the appropriate framework if it's going to work."

"We note," she adds, "that the civil society organisations start isolated initiatives which are not integrated with what's going on around them. It's necessary to orientate oneself towards what has happened already in many other parts of the world. In Chile, for example, the names of those responsible were not make public, but it still led to the arrest of Pinochet."

The work of the Truth Commission includes the drawing up of a final report. This official document will describe the results of the Commission's research and make recommendations as to how human rights abuses can be avoided. The report will thus be a valuable source of information for other initiatives.

Idriss Benzikri, chairman of the Truth Commission, explains that they are unable to call individuals to account for their actions, since this is the job of the state. "But," he says, "if our research shows that parties, or political or civic organisations were responsible for excesses during the "leaden years", then we would present these conclusions in our final report."

The report should be ready by April 2005. The Truth Commission and the many workshops which have been dealing with the same issue have strongly influenced public opinion in Morocco. And that's resulted in a feeling that there's a need for more dynamism in the national justice system.

There's currently much speculation about a forthcoming royal decree. It's expected that it will allow the Truth Commission to continue its work, which has already started the process of cleaning out the swamp which is the Moroccan justice system.

Yassin Adnan

© Qantara. de 2005

Translation from German: Michael Lawton

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