Amnesty International Report 2005 - Morocco/Western Sahara

Covering events from January - December 2004

An Equity and Reconciliation Commission was inaugurated to look into hundreds of cases of "disappearance" and arbitrary detention in previous decades. The authorities continued their clampdown on suspected Islamist activists, sentencing more than 200 people to prison terms. Several of those sentenced had allegedly been tortured during questioning by the security forces. Other breaches of the right to a fair trial were reported. The authorities drafted a law to combat torture and said in July that allegations of torture reported in 2002 and 2003 would be investigated. The legal framework for women's rights was significantly improved. A royal pardon was granted to 33 people, including political prisoners and prisoners of conscience.


The USA accorded Morocco the status of "major non-NATO ally" in June, apparently in acknowledgement of what a senior administration official described as "Morocco's steadfast support in the global war on terror". The status lifted restrictions on arms sales. The USA also signed a free-trade agreement with Morocco.

The Personal Envoy of the UN Secretary-General for Western Sahara, James Baker, resigned in June after seven years of failed efforts to resolve the dispute over the territory's status. Morocco's efforts to convince the international community of its sovereign rights over Western Sahara suffered a setback in September when South Africa formally established diplomatic ties with the Polisario Front, which calls for an independent state in Western Sahara and operates a self-proclaimed government-in-exile in refugee camps near Tindouf, south-western Algeria. A new war of words subsequently flared up between Morocco and neighbouring Algeria.

Equity and Reconciliation Commission

On 7 January an Equity and Reconciliation Commission was inaugurated by King Mohamed VI to "close the file on past human rights violations". One of its tasks is to complete payment of compensation to victims of "disappearances" and arbitrary detention that occurred between the 1950s and 1990s. The Commission is also charged with providing other forms of reparation to enable victims to be rehabilitated and reintegrated into society, and with proposing measures to prevent recurrence of such human rights violations. To this end, it consulted with victims and associations representing them on a range of ideas. By December the Commission had received requests for reparations concerning more than 16,000 victims.

Another main task of the Commission is to establish the fate of hundreds of people who "disappeared" in previous decades and, in the case of those who died in detention, to locate their remains. During the year the Commission collected testimonies from relatives of the "disappeared" and began preparing a report, due in April 2005, that would set out the reasons and institutional responsibilities for grave violations up to 1999. In December it began organizing public hearings, broadcast on radio and television, in which dozens of witnesses and victims would present their testimonies.

However, the Commission's statutes categorically excluded the identification of individual perpetrators and rejected criminal prosecutions, prompting the UN Human Rights Committee in November to express concern that no steps were planned to bring to justice those responsible for "disappearances". Some perpetrators were alleged to remain members or even high-ranking officials of the security forces.

Abuses during the 'counter-terrorism'campaign

The authorities continued their clampdown on suspected Islamist activists, a campaign that began in 2002 and intensified following the killing of 45 people in bomb attacks in Casablanca on 16 May 2003. Over 200 people were sentenced to prison terms ranging from several months to life imprisonment, convicted of belonging to "criminal gangs" or of involvement in planning violent acts. Those sentenced to death in 2003 remained in custody at the end of the year. No executions have taken place in Morocco/Western Sahara since 1993. Several of those sentenced in 2004 were allegedly tortured to extract confessions or to force them to sign or thumbprint statements they rejected. Other breaches of the right to a fair trial were reported, such as the frequent rejection by courts of requests by defence lawyers to call defence witnesses.

In February, AI sent a memorandum to the authorities detailing the findings of its research into the alleged torture in 2002 and 2003 of dozens of suspects held in secret detention by the Directorate for the Surveillance of the Territory (the internal intelligence service), allegations the authorities had dismissed as baseless at the time. Subsequently, the authorities acknowledged that a limited number of abuses may have occurred, and in July the Prime Minister declared that investigations would be carried out and "appropriate measures" taken against those responsible. Several investigations were started and a law to combat torture was drafted.

The UN Human Rights Committee expressed concern in November about the large number of alleged cases of torture or ill-treatment in detention and the lack of independent investigations into them.

Women's rights

On 3 February a new Family Code was promulgated which significantly improved the legal framework for women's rights. Husbands and wives were accorded equal and joint responsibility for running the family home and bringing up children, and the wife's duty of obedience to her husband was rescinded. The minimum age of marriage for women was raised from 15 to 18, the same as for men, and the requirement of a male marital tutor (wali) for women to marry was eliminated. Severe restrictions were imposed on male polygamy. The right to divorce by mutual consent was established and unilateral divorce by the husband was placed under strict judicial control. However, provisions governing inheritance rights, which widely discriminate against women, remained almost entirely unchanged.

Confirming the findings of local women's rights organizations, the UN Human Rights Committee expressed its concern in November about the high level of domestic violence against women.

Pardon of political prisoners

On 7 January a royal pardon was granted to 33 people, including political prisoners and prisoners of conscience. Among them were human rights defenders, journalists and Islamist activists, including Ali Lmrabet, a Moroccan journalist sentenced to three years' imprisonment in June 2003, and Ali Salem Tamek, a human rights defender from Western Sahara sentenced to two years' imprisonment in October 2002.

Rights of migrants

Hundreds of migrants, most from sub-Saharan Africa, were arrested and deported. Several alleged that the security forces used excessive force during arrest or tortured or ill-treated them in custody. In April, two Nigerian nationals died reportedly after being shot by the security forces near the border with the Spanish enclave of Melilla. The authorities launched an investigation into the incident.

The UN Special Rapporteur on the human rights of migrants published a report in January following a visit to Morocco in October 2003. She expressed particular concern about the situation of sub-Saharan migrants who often "live in the most appalling conditions". She noted that "many of them, fleeing from conflict in their own countries, have no assurance that they will be granted refugee status or that their asylum applications will be considered before they are escorted to the border" for deportation. The Special Rapporteur reported that "neither the authorities responsible for law and order and for control of air, sea and land borders, nor the judicial authorities, have clear information regarding refugee status". She recommended, among other things, that "a plan of action be drawn up to protect migrants' rights through training for judicial authorities, access to appeal procedures, awareness-raising and information campaigns."

Expulsion of journalists

At least five foreign journalists reporting on Western Sahara were expelled, apparently as part of an attempt by the authorities to prevent independent reporting on the territory. The expulsions were not preceded by judicial rulings and the journalists were not allowed to submit reasons against their expulsion or to have their cases reviewed by a judicial authority.

  • Catherine Graciet and Nadia Ferroukhi, respectively a French journalist and a French-Algerian photographer, were arrested at a police roadblock by men in plain clothes on 27 January as they were travelling to Western Sahara to report on living conditions there. They were detained overnight in a hotel and then taken to Agadir, where they were reportedly questioned by police in plain clothes and then obliged to take a flight to France. They said that the authorities accused them of not having notified the Moroccan authorities that they planned to report on Western Sahara before travelling to the region. Official sources said that they were expelled because they were suspected of undertaking "propaganda" activities in favour of the Polisario Front and were found in possession of "large amounts of documentation" favourable to the Polisario Front's position.

Polisario camps

The Polisario Front freed 200 Moroccan prisoners of war whom it had captured between 1975 and 1991 and detained ever since in its camps near Tindouf, south-western Algeria. One hundred were released in February and another 100 in June. They were then repatriated under the auspices of the International Committee of the Red Cross. However, 412 remained in detention at the end of the year. Under international humanitarian law, the Polisario Front was obliged to release the prisoners without delay after the end of armed hostilities in 1991 following a ceasefire brokered by the UN.

Those responsible for human rights abuses in the camps in previous years continued to enjoy impunity. The Polisario authorities failed to hand over perpetrators still resident in the camps to the Algerian authorities to be brought to justice, and the Moroccan government failed to bring to justice perpetrators of abuses in the Polisario camps who had left the camps and were present on its territory.

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