Morocco's Liberal Facade

The country recently used a politicized trial to project respect for human rights. What's wrong with this picture?

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Two Islamist suspects arrive at the court room in Sale near Rabat on January 26, 2007. (Rafael Marchante/Reuters)

Rabat, Morocco -- In the early hours of February 17, Morocco's military penal court sentenced 25 criminals in a high-profile trial seen as a litmus test of Morocco's human rights record and position on the contested territory of Western Sahara. The trial's process in a military court was so controversial that two weeks later, Morocco's King Mohammed VI bowed to pressure from his human rights council and agreed that civilians should not be tried anymore in a military court except in certain circumstances.

The Rabat courthouse, Morocco's only martial court, conjures an era when torture, forced disappearances and public executions without due process were routine in the kingdom. The same court held trials in 1971 following a bloody coup d'état attempt against the government of King Hassan II. Meanwhile, hundreds of suspects had been summarily executed or imprisoned without trial. During this same era, Morocco's protective strategy in Western Sahara was heavy-handed and militarized.

The trial was considered an issue of both national security and international reputation for Morocco.

The recent trial was considered an issue of both national security and international reputation for Moroccans. Twenty-five men faced charges for murder of military personnel, desecration of corpses and criminal gang activity in November 2010 outside Laayoune, the capital of Western Sahara. Morocco's de facto rule of the territory since 1975 is strongly opposed by Algeria and the Polisario Front, a Sahrawi independence movement operating in Algeria. Many Moroccans believe the territory is a legitimate part of Morocco and issue of national integrity.

The eight-day trial progressed amid heavy security and dozens of guards toting guns and tear gas cans. Yet the defendants were free of handcuffs and sat a few feet from the victims' families. Permitted to wear their traditional Saharan cotton garments and shout political slogans throughout the trial, the defendants presented their cases to the judge and jury without interruption for hours on end. Such leniency and respect for criminals in a Moroccan court is unprecedented, especially in such a prominent case. Meanwhile, police allowed protests and demonstrations to occur day and night outside the court.

Around 60 international observers attended the trial by invitation to evaluate the court's treatment of the defendants. Morocco is signatory to several international human rights treaties but still suffers from its murky history of avoiding due process and using torture in its penal system. To reform this image, the country's well-funded public relations campaign has in recent years been promoting an open, just and cooperative Morocco.

King Mohammed VI swiftly moved to revise the country's constitution in 2011 and reorganize his government to mitigate Arab Spring unrest. Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and other human rights organizations have criticized the kingdom for its violent suppression of some Arab Spring protests, and also for unjust treatment of detainees under investigation for the 2010 events in Laayoune.

In October 2010, Moroccan Sahrawis established a tent camp outside Laayoune to protest Morocco's policies there and request additional government aid for jobs, social assistance and housing. The camp, called Gdeim Izik, appointed community representatives and tribal sheikhs to meet regularly with Ministry of the Interior officials and negotiate a solution to the group's demands. The Moroccan government provided water, medicine and health care to the camp inhabitants, and the Interior Ministry ordered Moroccan security forces not to intervene in the camp.

When negotiations deteriorated on both sides, the Moroccan military moved to dismantle the approximately 5,000-person camp that November. The Interior Ministry stated that troops who dismantled the camp were gendarmes, police forces, anti-riot units and Auxiliary Forces, but that no firearms were used to break up the camp.

Most camp dwellers left the site immediately but others stayed, allegedly surprising Moroccan forces with a store of rocks, knives, machetes, gas canisters and Molotov cocktails, killing 11 forces and two civilians and wounding 70, according to Moroccan authorities. Armed militants moved on to torch major buildings in the town of Laayoune. They were seen desecrating corpses and using Land Rovers to run over military gendarmes.

The camp demonstration began as a protest for economic and social rights but appeared to morph into a violent exercise with political overtones. Moroccan public sentiment has viewed the camp dwellers as terrorists turning a peaceful protest into a violent attack against Moroccan authorities. One Moroccan scholar watching the trial observed that "In the old days, the forces would have just killed" the militants and could have "taken them down in 15 minutes. Instead, government forces chose to film them. They knew this was a precious moment."

Human Rights Watch reported that after the tent camp was dismantled, Moroccan authorities tightly limited access to the area, "allowing few journalists or representatives of nongovernmental organizations to reach the city and turning back many who tried."

According to the Polisario, 36 Sahrawis were killed and 723 were wounded in the conflict. The Algeria-based and funded group has publicly condemned the sentences as unfair and politically motivated. The prosecution presented evidence that the defendants received money and support from outside Morocco and from other secessionists and criminals sympathetic to the Polisario.

In the courtroom, the military's general prosecutor told the story of each defendant's involvement in the crimes and presented multiple photos and videos, sworn testimonies and physical evidence such as cell phones, walkie-talkies, computers, military uniforms and identity badges stolen from Moroccan forces. The prosecution detailed the relationships among the accused and the formation of their complex criminal network in preparation for the attacks.

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Alison Lake is an independent journalist and editor based in Washington, D.C.

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