Events of 1990

Human Rights Developments

Morocco continued to experience major human rights violations during 1990. As in past years, members of certain opposition groups were subjected to prolonged illegal detention, torture, and convictions in courts that showed little inclination to safeguard the rights of defendants. Authorities also cracked down on individuals who called attention to human rights abuses, bringing several journalists to trial and in effect expelling four foreign human rights monitors from the country.

None of Morocco's best-known human rights cases was resolved during 1990. Among them are the prisoners in the secret detention center of Tazmamart, whose existence the government continues to refuse to acknowledge. The fortress in southern Morocco holds under deplorable conditions a group of soldiers who were sentenced in 1971 and 1972 for participating in two coup attempts. Many are being held after the expiration of their sentences, while others have died without their families being informed.

The year 1990 was also one in which a number of developments put human rights in Morocco on the national and international agenda as never before. First, in February, King Hassan II and his Ministers of Interior and Justice held meetings with representatives of Amnesty International. But after Amnesty published a report on Morocco, the government took out advertisements in European dailies to denounce the organization. Partly in response to his sparring with Amnesty, the King announced in May the formation of a Consultative Council on Human Rights to "assist" him on human rights questions. Finally, the publication four months later in France of a biography of the King which focused on human rights abuses in Morocco set off a protracted controversy that kept the spotlight on the subject in both Morocco and France.

Moroccan prisons house more than 300 accused political opponents of the government, according to Amnesty International, many of them held for the peaceful expression of their beliefs. In 1990, the continuing nature of the repression was illustrated by the prosecution of members of the Islamic organization al-Adl w'al-Ihsan (Justice and Charity), which, according to its founder, Abdesalam Yassine, seeks to Islamicize society through nonviolent means.

Arrests of suspected members of al-Adl w'al-Ihsan began in the fall of 1989 and continued until the following spring. At least 40 members were put on trial in five different cities, mostly on charges related to forming or belonging to an unauthorized association and distributing literature connected with the association. Nearly all of the charges were of a nonviolent nature. The courts convicted at least 30 alleged members and gave them prison sentences of up to two years, although on appeal some of the convictions were overturned and some of the prison sentences were shortened.

At the trials, the defense accused the police and prosecutors of various irregularities of criminal procedure. Among the alleged irregularities were some that have long been commonplace in Morocco, including violations of the legal procedures for conducting searches and falsification of the recorded date of arrest to prolong garde-à-vue (preliminary incommunicado) detention without appearing to exceed the legal time limit.

The courts hearing the al-Adl w'al-Ihsan cases were largely unresponsive to efforts by defense teams to raise these procedural irregularities. In this respect they behaved in a manner typical of the Moroccan judiciary, which routinely covers up police and prosecutorial misconduct by refusing to investigate and act upon blatant improprieties.

Reports of torture continued during 1990. Abuses affect not only suspects under interrogation, but also prisoners serving sentences, who have launched numerous hunger strikes to protest physical abuse and other forms of mistreatment. The reluctance of Moroccan courts to entertain defense motions alleging that confessions had been extracted under torture in effect condones the continuation of such abuse.

Morocco's opposition press has been able to describe these and other violations on a regular basis, although at some risk. At least three defamation cases were initiated in 1990 against publishers who had printed articles critical of the judiciary. The Moroccan Press Code defines defamation broadly to include "any allegation or imputation concerning a fact which impugns the honor or reputation of a person or body."

Ahmed Bendjelloun, director of the opposition newspaper at-Tariq (The Path), was sentenced to four months in prison in May for publishing an article criticizing a local court of appeals for showing a lack of independence in its handling of a dispute involving the dismissal of two labor officials. The same month, Mustapha el-Alaoui, director of al-Usbu' as-Sahafa w'as-Siyasi (The Week in Press and Politics), was sentenced to three months in prison for "defamation of the courts and tribunals." Both Bendjelloun and al-Aloui filed appeals. In October, the director and editor of Al-Ittihad al-Ishtiraki (Socialist Unity), the daily of the leading opposition leftist party, the Socialist Union of Popular Forces, went on trial for a 1989 article describing poor conditions in the Casablanca courts.

Morocco also struck out against foreign human rights monitors. In March, two delegates of Amnesty International were effectively expelled from Morocco. The action came one month after Amnesty had infuriated Moroccan authorities by publishing a critical report on detention procedures shortly after its delegates had met with King Hassan and top government officials to discuss Amnesty concerns. The government complained that Amnesty's report failed to incorporate adequately the comments and promises made by officials in those meetings. The government then took out advertisements in European newspapers to denounce Amnesty for publishing its report so soon after the meetings with officials. (Amnesty explained that "[t]he government's responses...failed to address Amnesty International's concerns or indicate a commitment to make the necessary changes in the penal system and practice to end widespread and serious human rights violations.")

The following month, the government expelled two representatives of the Paris-based human rights organization the Association for the Victims of Repression in Exile. The authorities accused the two of entering the country on false pretenses by using tourist visas. On a previous trip that one of the two had made in 1989, airport police searched her belongings as she was leaving the country and confiscated documents and photographs of victims of ill-treatment in detention.

Neither incident aroused as much controversy as Morocco's furious response to the publication in Paris in September of journalist Gilles Perrault's Notre Ami Le Roi (Our Friend the King), an unflattering biography of King Hassan that described in detail some of the human rights abuses endemic to his 30-year reign. In an orchestrated fashion, the Moroccan government, and many private Moroccan citizens, denounced what they described as an anti-Morocco campaign being waged in France. The government protested to the French government about the publicity that the book was receiving in the French media, and canceled the elaborate "Temps du Maroc" festival in France that had been long in planning. Rebroadcasts in Morocco of French TV-5 were blocked for a while, as were sales of French newspapers and magazines.

Obviously concerned about the effect of human rights reports on the image of Morocco, King Hassan announced in May the creation of the Consultative Council on Human Rights, a body composed of members of the government, opposition parties, human rights groups and labor organizations. Members of two of Morocco's independent rights organizations agreed to participate, while the third declined to join the body on the grounds of its official sponsorship.

In announcing the Council's formation, the King charged it with determining the accuracy of allegations about human rights abuses in Morocco. At the same time, the King signaled that certain acts would fall outside the Council's definition of human rights abuse, although those acts clearly would seem to be prohibited by internationally recognized human rights instruments. For example, in a reference to the disputed issue of sovereignty over the Western Sahara, the King said,

If we some day learn or read that a Moroccan has said such a region is no part of Moroccan territory, it can but be a case of a renegade, an outlaw who could not be considered as a detainee or a political prisoner.

Other types of speech were also to be considered unprotected:

He who, through a poster, a newspaper or a speech, calls for a regime other than the constitutional monarchy, I think it is not a political act he is undertaking, but rather a subversive act he is committing against the people's will and the Constitution.

Through the end of 1990, the Council had shown few signs of independence from the government. In its inaugural sessions, it created committees to look at police and preventive custody, as well as prison conditions; at year's end it formed a commission to investigate the riots that erupted in several cities on December 14 and 15, in which security forces killed a disputed number of civilians. However, the Council's deliberations were not made public, and it had yet to issue any report to indicate how seriously it intends to investigate allegations of abuse.

US Policy

The United States is in a unique position to encourage Morocco to improve its human rights practices. While France has the closest ties to Morocco of any Western country, Morocco remains highly sensitive to perceived interference on human rights matters by its former colonizer. The United States, meanwhile, sends Morocco $120 million annually in aid, and maintains a friendly relationship with the King, whom it considers to be an Arab moderate and an ally in the region.

Yet, as is commonly the case with its allies outside the public limelight, the Bush administration exerted no public pressure on Morocco to improve its poor human rights record in 1990. Middle East Watch is aware of no occasion during the year when an administration official took a public stand on human rights abuses in Morocco. Meanwhile, private bilateral discussions, to the extent that they have taken place, have singularly failed to ameliorate Morocco's human rights performance. The sole – and important – exception to the administration's public silence was the State Department's annual Country Reports on Human Rights Practices, published in February. The chapter on Morocco observed that "the human rights situation did not improve significantly in 1989, and appears to have deteriorated in several areas." It noted that the number of reports of torture remained "high," and that "[t]he government often ignores guarantees of procedural due process." The report was particularly critical of attacks on freedom of speech and the press: "The constitution provides for freedom of expression; however, political meetings are closely watched, criticism of the monarchy and Islam is not tolerated, and, in the opinion of most observers, neither foreign policy nor domestic politics is fully open to free discussion."

Morocco stands to receive approximately the same $120 million package in fiscal year 1991 that it received in fiscal years 1989 and 1990. That includes $80 million in economic and development assistance, divided in equal parts between loans and grants, and $40 million in military assistance. The package makes Morocco the third largest recipient of US aid in the Middle East, trailing, distantly, behind Israel and Egypt.

King Hassan is notoriously stubborn in the face of international pressure. He has resisted international campaigns to resolve well known human rights cases, such as the plight of the family of Gen. Mohammed Oufkir. Eighteen years after the general reportedly led a coup attempt – after which he died in suspicious circumstances – his widow and six children remain under house arrest merely because of their relation to him. In 1987, King Hassan had even promised French President François Mitterrand that the Oufkir family would be released within a few weeks.

While the King has so far declined to improve Morocco's human rights image by reducing the severity of abuses, 1990 saw him more determined than ever to improve that image by waging battle on the level of public relations, including, as noted, his exchanges with Amnesty International, his formation of the Consultative Council on Human Rights, and the campaign against Notre Ami le Roi.

In this atmosphere, the Bush administration should use the leverage provided by its aid package and cordial relations to pressure King Hassan to shift his efforts from the public-relations domain to that of actual improvements in human rights practices.

The Work of Middle East Watch

Middle East Watch conducted a preliminary fact-finding mission to Morocco in March 1990. In April, it released a newsletter revealing newly corroborated details about the deplorable conditions under which at least 58 prisoners have been held in a secret detention center in Tazmamart. Many of the original group, who were sentenced for involvement in two failed coup attempts in the early 1970s, have died in Tazmamart or continue to be held beyond the expiration of their sentences. None of the prisoners sentence to three years or more has been released.

Middle East Watch will publish a full report on human rights in Morocco during 1991.

This is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.