The grim names Moroccans assign to the post-independence years — in Arabic, zaman al-rusas and al-sanawat al-sawda, in French les anneés de plomb and les années noires or in English “the years of lead” and “the black years” — evoke an era of grayness and lead bullets, fear and repression. During les années sombres, the “somber years” of forcible disappearances and farcical mass political trials, large numbers of people representing various political persuasions served long prison sentences for voicing opposition to the regime. By international standards, they were prisoners of conscience.

What is a political prisoner? Abderrahman Benameur, lawyer and activist with the Moroccan Association of Human Rights (AMDH), links political imprisonment with unauthorized views, but also views emerging from any political act at all. The Moroccan state, in effect, has criminalized all political activity and thought that promotes “l’opinion nonofficielle,” political acts such as writing tracts, holding meetings and attending demonstrations. [1]

A series of changes in the law during the 1990s serve as a thumbnail history of the treatment of political prisoners in Morocco. In a much-quoted speech delivered July 8, 1994, King Hassan II promised “to turn the page definitively” and to resolve the pressing issue of political prisoners. [2] Four years earlier, the king had created a royal Advisory Council on Human Rights, Conseil Consultatif des Droits de l’Homme (CCDH), with various working subgroups. In 1993, a new Ministry of Human Rights was formed, and on June 21 of that year Morocco ratified the United Nations Convention against Torture. 1996 saw revisions in the Code of Penal Procedure which limited garde-à-vue — defined as incommunicado detention in Anglo- American law because Morocco has no habeas corpus — to 48 hours, with one 24-hour extension allowed at the prosecutor’s discretion. Nonetheless, in state security cases, the rubric under which political prisoners were tried, the garde-à-vue period remained 96 hours with possible extensions by the prosecutor. Finally, in 1998, the Ministry of Justice and the prison administration implemented a law that made autopsies routine for any death occurring in detention.

Indemnities on Deadline

More government activity concerning human rights reforms in 1998 seemed to complement Morocco’s newly elected 1997 government of alternance (rotation of prime ministers). On October 9, 1998, a speech by King Hassan II directed again that all human rights cases should be resolved within six months. In CCDH meetings to discuss the “disappeared” file on September 28, 1998 and again on October 15, 1998, CCDH and its president, Driss Dahak, issued a press release establishing a list of 112 “disappeared” persons. Fifty-six people were declared dead with no accompanying information; the others were described as disappeared in unknown situations, either living abroad or in Morocco, or presumed dead. While these figures were absurdly low, the CCDH memorandum implicitly confirmed official state recognition of the fact of forcible disappearance.

Eight days after the death of King Hassan II on July 23, 1999, his son and heir Mohammed VI affirmed in his first throne speech a commitment to establish the rule of law, and to safeguard human rights, individual and collective liberties, a constitutional monarchy, a multi-party system, economic liberalism and policies of regionalism and decentralization. [3] In August, Mohammed VI ordered the CCDH to activate an independent Indemnity Commission (Commission d’arbitrage), with a mandate to expire midnight December 31, 1999, to indemnify former victims of forcible disappearance and arbitrary detention. [4] Detention victims and Moroccan human rights activists, two communities with overlapping memberships, roundly criticized the CCDH bulletin describing the procedures, mandate and membership of the Indemnity Commision. The CCDH predetermined the number of “disappeared,” failing to count, for example, the Group Bnouhachem (students held in a variety of secret detention centers without trial from 1975-1984) and soldiers from the 1971 and 1972 failed coups d’etat held arbitrarily for almost 20 years in Tazmamart, Morocco’s most infamous secret prison. CCDH members ruled that victims filing requests for indemnities had no right to appeal decisions. Most outrageously, CCDH granted amnesty to torturers and to all those responsible for secret detention centers, illegal garde-à-vue, unfair trials and the systematic practice of torture in police stations and prisons.

The first six months of the new king’s reign were filled with dramatic events indicating that Morocco had in fact turned the page on its past history of human rights abuses. Leftist Abraham Serfaty, one of the longest incarcerated political prisoners (18 years in jail followed by seven years of enforced exile in France), came back to Morocco on September 30, 1999. On November 27, the family of assassinated leftist leader Mehdi Ben Barka returned. Moroccan newspapers gave wide coverage to the year-long events following the arrest of General Augusto Pinochet, Chilean military junta leader from 1973-1990, and his possible extradition to Spain for the crimes of genocide, torture and forcible diappearances. Following the Pinochet precedent, Mohammed El Battiui, a student activist arrested and tortured in the 1984 Oujda University riots, filed a case against former Interior Minister Driss Basri. Symbol of the old regime’s human rights abuses, Basri was removed by the new king on November 9, 1999 from a position he had held since 1979. Now stripped of his immunity, Basri was accused by El Battiui of “crimes against humanity” on November 16 at the Palais de Justice in Brussels. [5] By the December 31 deadline set by the CCDH for filing claims against the state, the Indemnity Commission had received 5,819 dossiers demanding damages.

Beginning at the End

Chile, Argentina and South Africa provide three models for national responses to endemic human rights violations. The Chilean National Commission on Truth and Reconciliation formed in 1990 extensively documented violations but had no authority to judge those responsible. In Argentina, the National Commission on Disappeared Persons (CONADEP), established in 1983, published documentation of almost 9,000 unsolved “disappearances” resulting in over 1,000 cases presented to Argentinian civilian courts. The South African Truth Commission of 1996, chaired by Bishop Desmond Tutu, created several subgroups to promote national reconciliation: a Committee on Violations of Human Rights to identify victims and review compensation proposals, a Committee on Amnesty to grant amnesty or indemnities and a Committee on Compensation and Rehabilitation to provide victims of human rights violations with a public forum. Victims of serious violations have the right to file a request for compensation. South African policy was to grant amnesty, if information is fully disclosed about political acts. The latter are defined as acts committed by a political organization or a member of the security forces within the framework of obligations and authorities. [6]

In contrast, the Moroccan Indemnity Commission began at the end — with indemnities — of what should be the process for any genuine truth commission. Indemnity as conceived by CCDH appears to recognize illegal state practices implicitly. Compensation suggests something compensatable. The problem of past human rights violations is posed in material terms only, meaning that the only way for victims to be acknowledged is for them to file claims requesting indemnification. There are no public hearings, no attempts to provide the nation with an account of the past and blanket amnesties were declared as part of the creation of the Indemnity Commission. Despite much newspaper coverage, functionaries like Youssef Kaddour, a high civil servant and known chief torturer at Derb Moulay Cherif, the Casablanca secret detention center, and Mahmoud Archane, former police officer and torturer at the Rabat Commisariat and current member of Parliament, remain in place, proof of the impunity afforded past offenders by the indemnity solution. No one has been tried and crimes are considered unproven. Amnesty is hotly debated where truth and reconciliation processes are available. Mitigating circumstances are offered to hold up prosecution of many offenders. The offender was “following orders,” Morocco’s 20-year statute of limitations has expired on the offense or international human rights instruments, though ratified by Morocco, were not in force when the offenses occurred.

Forum for Truth and Equity

Former political prisoners and human rights activists responded immediately to the Indemnity Commission’s creation. An open meeting on October 10, 1999 set up a two-day conference in Casablanca on November 27-28. At the conference, groups of former political prisoners and human rights activists formed the Moroccan Forum for Truth and Equity (Forum Marocain pour la Verité et l’Equité, or al-Muntada al-Maghribi min ajl al-Haqiqa wa al-Insaf ) and elected a 13-member executive committee. The committee’s very composition, ten men and three women, represents a history of mass political trials and forcible disappearances: Driss Benzekri, president (political prisoner 1974-91, Marxist-Leninist group Ila al-Amam), Salah El-Ouadie, vice president (political prisoner 1974-84, Marxist-Leninist group “March 23 Movement”), Khadija Rouissi, secretary general (member of the Committee for the Families of the Disappeared and sister of Abdelhak Rouissi, union activist forcibly disappeared in 1964), Abdelhaq Mousaddeq, vice secretary general (political prisoner 1985-94, Ila al-Amam), Moustafa Meftah, treasurer (political prisoner 1974-84, “March 23 Movement”), Ahmed Haou, vice-treasurer (political prisoner 1984-1998, Islamist Group of 71), Abdullah Zrikem (political prisoner 1974-84, “March 23 Movement”), Nezha Bernoussi (political prisoner 1985-91, Ila al-Amam), Abdellah El Manouzi (member of the Committee for the Families of the Disappeared and brother of Hussein El Manouzi, activist forcibly disappeared in 1974), Fatna Afid (daughter of Mbarek Bensalem Afid, a political prisoner, 1971-74, Group 1971 Marrakech trials), and Hassan Mutiq (Saharan political prisoner, 1977-82, Group Meknes).

Since its formation as a non-governmental association, the Forum has publicly insisted that a more extensive national process — one that resembles truth and reconciliation commissions elsewhere — is essential. Additional recommendations of the Forum include public rehabilitation of the victims, restitution of remains of “disappeared” persons for reburial and monetary benefits to victims and relatives with medical care, education and shelter for all those involved. According to the Forum, the state is obliged to recognize individual suffering with extensive official reports paying attention to individual cases. Getting at the truth about past abuses requires cooperation from state officials, various police forces and ministries, none of which are prepared to cooperate. Even the number of victims is unknown.

By June 2000, the Forum had drafted a standard form for all who suffered from arbitrary repression or those competent to write on behalf of the dead, the disappeared or others unable to write for themselves. Numerous commemoration activities were organized for and by the victims. The National Day of the Disappeared (October 29, 1999) was memorialized with a press conference of testimonies from the “disappeared” of Tazmamart, the Saharan groups and Group Bnouhachem, followed by a mass demonstration in front of Parliament. Public ceremonies commemorated the twenty-fifth anniversary of the death under torture of Abdellatif Zeroual on November 14, and the twenty-second anniversary of the death from hunger strike of Saida Menebhi, a woman political prisoner, on December 11. The Forum believes in, and has initiated, innovative performance practices to memorialize victims in celebrations, literature, museums and school programs.

The Forum’s legal recommendations for prevention of abuses include ratification of international treaties, an automated and publicly accessible database on detentions and the inclusion of human rights education at all levels of schooling, from primary to university. Morocco is to become a state under rule of law. Parallel secret police services (DST, DGED) should either be disbanded or placed under parliamentary control. Driss Benzekri, Forum president, asks for the establishment of a commission of inquiry with full powers of judicial investigation — the power to subpoena necessary archival or police documents and the power to summon witnesses. But according to Benzekri, the Moroccan approach is so far the most underdeveloped and the least serious of international reconciliation efforts. Unlike Chad or South Africa, Morocco has not changed regimes, a departure that allows for a clearer treatment of past violations. In Morocco, the regime is transforming itself from the inside, trying to become democratic yet retaining control, a process that parallels the regime’s approach to human rights. Benzikri believes the difficulties began when King Hassan II created the CCDH as a non-independent body with no clear mandate or procedures. [7] A fundamental paradox resulted: Morocco has “turned the page” without recognizing state crimes.

Burdens of the Past

Reconciliation is a process. Even if the Moroccan authorities were to release information to help establish officially a report about the past, punishing the perpetrators may not be an outcome. Nonetheless, Fuad Ali Hima, palace spokeperson, Omar Azziman, Minister of Justice, and Driss Dahak, CCDH chair, have created channels of discussion between the palace and the Forum. As advisors to the king, the Forum has demonstrated the will to push for something resembling a truth commission for Morocco. The disappointing early 1998 CCDH bulletin that announced a mere 112 “disappeared” could still serve as a point of departure for a genuine truth commission. A Commission of Verification of the Inquiry (Commission de la Verifi- cation de l’Enquete) was established within the CCDH in 1998. It includes Mohamed Ldidi (Director of Prisons, Ministry of Justice) and Mohieddin Amzazi, a former university professor who became governor in charge of the 1996 anti-narcotics campaign and is seen as a representative of the Ministry of Interior. The commission’s original inquiry that identified 112 disap- peared could be redone, and the commission’s mandate and powers be expanded. In this way, the new king could preserve an image of continuity with the initiatives of Hassan II’s regime. Mohammed VI has made no public criticism of his father — in fact, Moroccan law prohibits negative commentary about members of the royal family, present and past. [8]

Forum members envision their actions within a larger framework. Rehabilitating the “disappeared” and the victims of oppression with recognition or money and jobs is only their immediate goal. They seek to rehabilitate all of Moroccan society by abolishing the culture of impunity, fear and victimization, and fostering in its place a confidence in democracy and human rights upon which to build a new state. The Forum-organized sit-in that took place at Derb Moulay Cherif on March 4, 2000, was a complex public performance that attempted to express the shareability of pain. Over 1,000 people formed a human chain. Participants placed flowers on the ground in memory of the dead, brandished photographs and posters of the many disappeared, and lit candles, holding them aloft and placing them in a row on either side of the road leading to the entrance gates of the prison. The imagery was stark. The flowers are for the dead but also symbolized reconciliation; the candles for mourning but also illuminated the community of human rights activists silently asking for light to be shed on the dark years and the black pages. [9] Those most wounded by torture encircled the place that most dramatically represents their bodily pain. From the outside, they demanded the unveiling of flagrant violations in this center of repression and its conversion into a museum for documentatation of the “years of lead.” A circle may enclose and exorcise but it also establishes a “cordon sanitaire” — keeping the people standing outside distanced from the protected inner sanctum. For now, what is within the circle remains black, unreadable and unknowable. The great doors to Derb Moulay Cherif are barred shut, its torturers fully protected inside, its archives and documentation secret. The March 4 sit-in took the form of another circle, the halqa of the storyteller. Those encircling Derb Moulay Cherif told the stories of their victimization and presented living proof of the human capacity to make explicit the will to change. There is no truth for these victims of Moroccan state repression, and no reconciliation — only money.
Author’s Note: Research in Morocco (summers 1996, 1997 and 1999-2000) was funded by grants from the American Institute of Maghribi Studies and by a Fulbright award.


[1] Abderrahman Benameur, “Quelques remarques sur la détention politique,” al-Tadamun 2 (February 1982), and “Man huwa al-mu‘taqil al-siyasi?” al-Tadamun 3 (February 1983).
[2] Text in Driss Basri, Michel Rousset and Georges Vedel, “Avant-Propos,” Le Maroc et les droits de l’homme (Paris: L’Harmattan, 1994), p. vii.
[3] Mohammed VI, “Premier discours du trone,” Le Matin du Sahara et du Maghreb, August 1, 1999.
[4] See “Création d’une Commission d’arbitrage indépendante,” Le Matin du Sahara et du Maghreb, August 17, 1999. The first hearings began November 11, 1999.
[5] “Maroc: une plainte devait etre déposé,” Le Monde, November 17, 1999.
[6] Priscilla B. Hayner, “Fifteen Truth Commissions—1974-1994: A Comparative Study,” Human Rights Quarterly 16 (1994).
[7] Mohamed Moustaid, “L’approche marocain est la moins reflechie,” Le Journal, December
25-31, 1999.
[8] Interview with Driss Benzekri, Rabat, June 22, 2000.
[9] “Shumu‘ tabhath ‘an al-haqiqa,” al-Ahdath al-Maghribiyya, March 6, 2000.

How to cite this article:

Susan Slyomovics "A Truth Commission for Morocco," Middle East Report 218 (Spring 2001).

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