Thursday, March 14, 2013

Morocco's Liberal Facade

    Thursday, March 14, 2013   No comments

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.

Isr Ed

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