Tuesday, May 17, 2005

AL HOCEIMA, Morocco - Fists raised and voices thundering, several dozen youths shouted down a public hearing in this Rif Mountains region known for its rebellious streak: “Today, today — not tomorrow. We demand the executioners be tried.”

For 45 minutes they clapped, chanted and waved clenched fists until the members of a truth commission left the hall.

The outburst reflects the mixed Moroccan opinions about the panel set up by King Mohammed VI to “close the file on past human rights violations” — four decades of disappearances, detention and torture of thousands of political opponents — most during the reign of King Hassan II.

The Equity and Reconciliation Commission, the first of its kind in the Arab world, was set up in 2002 and patterned after the South African panel that examined apartheid-era brutality. But the South African system invited perpetrators to confess their abuses in return for amnesty; Morocco’s version has no mandate to punish evildoers or even name them.

It covers what Moroccans call the “years of lead” — or rule by bullets — from 1956, when the country won independence from France, until 1999, when Hassan died. But there will be no finger-pointing, especially at the late king. His son and successor has insisted that the commission is “not a court” but a forum to “examine without complexes or shame that page in our history.”

The panel has held seven sessions since December, taking oral testimony from victims or their relatives. These have been broadcast on Moroccan television and posted on the commission’s Web site.

Headed by a former Marxist and political prisoner, Driss Benzekri, the 17-member commission has received more than 22,000 submissions related to human-rights abuses, and is following up with site visits to conduct in-depth interviews. Government brutality was directed against an array of opponents, leftists or Islamic activists, from political parties to trade unions.

The volume of work prompted the commission to postpone an April deadline to report its findings. Among recommendations members are discussing is reform of state institutions and a call to security forces to respect human rights.

Commission members argue that naming perpetrators would violate their legal rights. Also, many of them are dead or removed from their posts, said commission member Driss El Yazami, secretary-general of the Paris-based International Federation for Human Rights and a member of Morocco’s truth commission.

He and others say the main thing is to make sure abuses aren’t repeated.

That sentiment doesn’t sit well in places like Al Hoceima, where the commission held hearings early this month with about 350 citizens present at a wedding hall overlooking the Mediterranean.

Al Hoceima is in a region populated by Berbers, whose ancestors predate the Arab conquest of North Africa in the seventh century. It has suffered extreme poverty and state neglect since a Berber rebellion was quashed in 1958.

Al Hoceima was one of several Rif Mountain towns where riots in 1984 led to a government crackdown and imprisonment, disappearances and the deaths of hundreds of Berbers.

“People here in the Rif are boiling,” said Fuad Marsouhi, 22, a student among the hecklers. “We explode with the slightest move.”

Commission members, bewildered by the disruption, put on a brave face.

“We’re letting them express their opinions freely,” Latifa Jbabdi said as she left the hall. “It’s a natural reaction to explode after so many years” of repression.

The 10 victims and relatives of victims also left, but came back five hours later to testify. This time, the hearing was restricted to human-rights activists, families and reporters. The witnesses, including two women, spoke until 2:30 a.m.

“It was Tuesday, June 12, 1956. At 10:30, a group of gunmen from the Liberation Army kidnapped him and took him to the abyss of Dar Bricha,” a secret detention center, said Fama Addoul. She recalled how her husband, Abdessalam Attaoud — a member of the Democratic Party of Independence — was taken by militiamen linked to the rival Istiqlal Party, accused of committing crimes against Rif people during a power struggle after independence.

In November that year, Mrs. Addoul saw her husband from a distance as she stood in an area overlooking the Dar Bricha jail. When she went back, he was nowhere to be seen.

“I was eight months pregnant and had been married to him for three years and eight months,” she said. She paused, then spoke in a quavering voice about her search for her husband — visiting militia offices, government and security officials and prisons.

“No one told me about his whereabouts,” she said. “I was all on my own.” She covered her face with her hands and wept. Her husband was never seen again.

Aissa Bouzidden, a 45-year-old nuclear physicist, read in an expressionless monotone from a prepared text. Active in the National Moroccan Students Union, he was among more than 600 students arrested in March 1987. He was detained for 15 days, arrested again in July 1989 and tortured for a month and a half while in police custody.

A criminal court in Al Hoceima sentenced him to five years in prison for drug trafficking and burning the national flag. His sentence was cut to two years on appeal.

While in custody, said Mr. Bouzidden, “I endured all sorts of torture, day and night, even while asleep. For months, I wasn’t able to move my arm.”

Victims and human-rights groups have described a range of tortures used in police custody: electric shocks, a technique called “the airplane” in which a victim is suspended from a pole and beaten, hands and feet bound together. Other abuses included blindfolding, beating on the genitals and soles of the feet, being dragged by a car and smotherings by detergent-soaked rags.

Prisoners were forced to sign confessions before being convicted in rigged trials.

The truth commission is charged with paying compensation to victims and their families and establishing the fate of hundreds of people who disappeared.

Critics say the period covered by the commission ought to extend to the present. They say abuses continue, pointing to the counterterrorism law under which an estimated 2,000 people were arrested after the May 16, 2003, suicide bombings in Casablanca that killed 32 bystanders and 13 attackers.

The recent death of a prisoner charged in the Casablanca blasts has renewed charges that abuses still occur in Moroccan jails. Moroccan officials insist that Khalid Boukri, 27, died of failure to his digestive system. A Moroccan newspaper quoted the justice minister as saying he has ordered an autopsy.

The Moroccan Association of Human Rights is leading a parallel series of public hearings in which post-1999 victims can testify and abusers can be named.

Ahmed Benjalloun, 62, a lawyer and former prisoner, prefers those hearings to the truth commission, which he dismissed as “a public weeping.”

“I want reconciliation. But who are we supposed to reconcile with when we are not allowed to identify them?” asked Mr. Benjalloun.

Commission member Salah el-Ouadies cites the perpetrators’ legal rights and adds: “It’s not our job to conduct trials.”

Mr. Bouzidden, the nuclear physicist who testified in Al Hoceima, said he isn’t seeking vengeance.

“I’m a simple man from the Rif, one of many sons of the region who suffered,” he said. “I do not want the trial of the torturers. … All I want is the truth: Why was I tortured for so long? Why did my family have to suffer? I want to know why I was afraid.”

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