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 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.

Some of the defendants who signed their names in various iterations to their sworn testimonies later stated that the testimonies were taken under pressure of torture. Most of the defendants were prior convicts imprisoned for dealing drugs, forming criminal gangs, assault charges, perjury and organizing illegal immigration.

The gang's ringleader, Abdeljalil Laaroussi, frequently traveled around Morocco to gather support for his group and build support for the idea of a mass emigration to Algeria. He formed a militant gang within the camp and distributed arms among the camp's self-appointed security force. Laaroussi admitted to ordering the militants "to kill as many Moroccan forces as possible." He received a life sentence in prison.

Although on trial for murder, the defendants appeared almost jubilant. During the trial they were permitted to face the observers and shout independence and pro-Polisario slogans in Spanish and Arabic as they raised their hands with a "v" for victory. They talked and joked with each other and even approached the bench occasionally and spoke without permission. Mustapha Naoui, a lawyer at the Center for Studies in Human Rights and Democracy in Rabat, was an official observer at the trial and noted the unusually lenient attitude of the judge toward the accused.

Frequently, the group turned to smile at family and sneer at the audience, and appeared relaxed and unconcerned, well-aware of the significant media and international attention to the case. The defense team did not expect their clients would receive the death penalty: Morocco has not executed anyone since the early 1990s. Meanwhile, public demonstrations supporting the accused emphasized the accused's stature as martyrs for the cause of Sahrawi self-determination.

International journalists, lawyers and human rights representatives attended the trial, as well as Spanish and Italian pro-Polisario activists. Although the court promised to translate the hearings and key rulings into French, Spanish English, and Hassani dialect for the benefit of observers and families, translations were often awkward, unclear and sporadic.

Eleven lawyers represented the defendants. Two lawyers came from Moroccan human rights organizations and the rest were either volunteers or funded by the defendants' families or international organizations. Some of the lawyers were evidently sympathetic to the pro-Sahraoui independence ideology of the accused and their accents revealed they originated from the same region in the South as their clients.

Members of Morocco's National Council of Human Rights present at the trial said it occurred "under normal conditions and was marked by due process." Rabat defense attorney Mostafa Jiaf noted, "The court's proceedings and the level of defense were afforded to the defendants regardless of their ideology, beliefs and political inclinations. The defense team made many requests to the judge. Some were granted while others were refused. Since we are in the country of law and justice, we respect the court's decisions."

Other foreign and Moroccan observers complained that the trial was not fair according to international standards since the accused were civilians and the trial was held in a military court. The same sentiment was echoed by the public in news media. Yet Moroccan law requires cases where victims or the accused are military personnel be tried by a military tribunal, said Naoufal Cherkaoui, a Rabat attorney who attended the trial as an observer. Cherkaoui said the judgment and sentences were fair and fit the severity of the crimes and the evidence provided.

Two weeks after the trial concluded, the kingdom's human rights council recommended to the king that the military court should rule, in peacetime, only on the cases related to military discipline, or to terrorism activities or matters undermining state security involving a member of the army. Military personnel involved in any other case should be brought before ordinary courts, exactly like other civilian litigants, the council argued. The king has agreed to proceed with this recommendation in response to public complaint over the issue.

Many of the accused claimed they had been tortured while under investigation in police custody. In a move that was criticized by human rights organizations, such as Amnesty International, the court did not permit additional medical examinations or investigation into torture claims, stating that ample examinations had already been performed during the two years since the incident, and that the defendants had been inconsistent and untruthful in many of their reports.

Human Rights Watch said in its 2012 report on Morocco that the kingdom's courts "seldom provide fair trials in cases with political overtones." The same report stated that Moroccan courts "routinely ignore requests for medical examinations from defendants who claim to have been tortured," and that 22 of the defendants spent more than two years in pre-trial custody.

"The use of military courts, compounded by the fact that torture allegations have not been investigated, casts a serious doubt on the Moroccan authorities' intention and whether they were more concerned with securing a guilty verdict than justice," said Ann Harrison, Deputy Middle East and North Africa Program Director at Amnesty International.

Yet those observing the trials and listening to hours of evidence from signed depositions heard that the defendants routinely changed their signatures and stories from one report to the next during the two-year investigation. The lawyer Cherkaoui said, "The judge investigated claims of torture and some case reports from the medical records and other depositions when the accused said they were not tortured, as well as some inconsistencies in the accused's statements at various times. In this case the judge was not convinced and decided not to further investigate the claims."

In the end, the martial court convicted nine men with life sentences, four with 30-year sentences, eight with 25-year sentences, two with 20-year sentences, and two with two-year sentences for time already served. A 25th defendant was tried in absentia and given a life sentence, but he remains at large. Moroccan law allows for appeal within one week to the appellate court in Rabat to examine the decisions and their legality.

Some observers believe the convicts will be able to leave prison well before their terms are complete. Cherkaoui and others interviewed said the men will likely receive pardons after a few years due to the politicized nature of the trial and Morocco's position on the Sahara.

The November 2010 riots and murder in Laayoune that prompted this trial have indicated to observers on both sides that the political status quo of the Western Sahara is untenable. The United Nations and other international entities view the continued stalemate over the territory's status as harmful to regional security and stability, as well as for the people living there. "Gdeim Izik events should have never escalated to that point," said Jamal Laoudi, a Moroccan-American blogger based in Washington. "It is easier to engage in prevention than it is to look for the cure."

Abderrahim Chalfaouat a writer and researcher at Hassan II University in Casablanca, said the camp "started as a protest seeking social and economic demands but changed into a gang-like ghetto further threatening the fragile stability in Laayoune. The sensitivity of the region pushed Morocco to treat the culprits as penal criminals, and not necessarily as supporters of the Polisario or of separatism. That is why they were indicted in a martial court." Chafaouat expects the trial will further undermine the relationship between Morocco and the Polisario, "because the Polisario supported the Gdeim Izik crimes and condemned the sentences."

Families and supporters of the accused and of the victims demonstrated outside the court throughout the duration of the trial. Supporters of the victims called for justice for the "martyrs" and demanded "truth and justice for the assassination of our sons." Ahmed Atertor, 65, an uncle of one of the victims, is also a human rights activist who was imprisoned 10 times in Morocco for his views on government policies. "I am glad both sides were given the freedom to speak in this trial," he stated. "We are all humans."

Amina Bouayach, vice president of the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) in Morocco, attended the trial and was happy with its openness. The victims' families who were present at the trial and interviewed on television also stated they were pleased the defendants received the sentences they did, but some of the families are pursuing their cases in civil court for damages.

Many Moroccans are pleased their government will not tolerate such violence in the kingdom and its de facto-ruled region of Western Sahara. Hassan Samrhouni, president of the Washington Moroccan Club and business owner in the U.S. and Morocco, said public safety is a main consideration in Morocco, which is concerned about home-grown and foreign terrorists, as well as violence in its south. Samrhouni believes that a military court was also chosen "to remove the possibility of interference in the trial from political parties."

A report from nine French observers representing the Association pour la Promotion des Libertés Fondamentales stated, "These conditions appeared to be more flexible than those found in many suits at common law in democratic countries." However, the same observers "were struck by the imbalances in the hearings because of the impossibility of a civil action."

After the verdicts were announced, the brother of one of the victims shouted in the courtroom that justice had been returned to his family. The defendants shouted the same slogan in the courtroom as their supporters outdoors: "There is no alternative to independence. Free Sahara, God is Great!" In the weeks after the trial, the convicts continue to conduct hunger strikes in prison to protest their sentences.