Morocco's harder line on security challenges reforms

The trial of 50 suspected terrorists highlights the struggle between security and human rights.

One of the accused leapt onto a bench and shouted over the glassed-in defendants' box: "We didn't do it! We were made to sign confessions."

Some of his codefendants – all charged with belonging to the Islamic militant group Ansar al-Mahdi and plotting attacks in Morocco – joined in the display of defiance. They chanted "Allah akbar," or God is great.

The courtroom ruckus last month was sparked by the judge's decision to once again delay the group's trial, as not all of the defendants had been appointed lawyers. The 46 men and four women have been jailed since late July and August. The new trial date is May 25.

Even as it undertakes some of the most ambitious political and social reforms in the Arab world, Morocco's efforts to improve its human rights and judiciary have hit a pothole. How big is uncertain. The kingdom now faces a rising militant threat – perhaps with Al Qaeda influence – prompting a new emphasis on security over individual rights. That shift worries reformers, and even counterterrorist experts.

"The reform process appears to be stalled, in part because of the growing strength of the Islamists [who] are expected to perform well in this year's elections," says Haim Malka, deputy director of the Middle East program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

Analysts and human rights groups charge that Morocco's use of tactics such as mass arrests inevitably lead to the regular incarceration of innocent people. They worry too that putting innocent people – especially young men who may sympathize with militant groups – into crowded prisons where they could be subjected to torture and abuse will only further radicalize them, eventually creating a broader and more determined terrorist network in Morocco.

"The threat of militant cells in Morocco seems real, but the major question is to what extent is the regime using the arrests and trials of militant Islamists to roll back some of the reforms they promised, and which some believe have spun out of control," says Mr. Malka.

Two years before he detonated a suicide belt in an Internet cafe in a Casablanca slum on March 11, killing only himself, Abdelfatah Raidi wrote in a letter dated 2005 that he was tortured in prison and was kept in substandard conditions. He sent the letter to Abderrahim Mouhtad, president of the group an-Naseer, which advocates for the rights of Islamist prisoners. Mr. Mouhtad, who works on behalf of about 200 prisoners, says that nearly 10 percent of his clients report incidents of torture in letters that are smuggled out by the prisoners' families.

After the string of coordinated attacks in 2003 in Casablanca, Mr. Raidi was arrested during the massive security sweeps through his neighborhood, a slum on the fringes of the city called Sidi Moumen. The area had also been home to the 14 men who carried out the 2003 attacks. Raidi's letter was sent just before Raidi was released under a royal pardon.

Mouhtab showed this reporter a video taken on a cellphone that was smuggled into a Moroccan prison. The video showed men sleeping wall-to-wall on the floors of overcrowded cells as well as unsanitary cooking and shower facilities.

"It is very possible that detention policies in Algeria, Morocco, and other countries in the region help create radicals who will eventually be released back into society, where they can more effectively spread their views among youths and others," writes Emily Hunt in a report on terrorism in North Africa for the Washington Institute on Near East Policy.

The US State Department noted in a 2006 report on Morocco that, "Attorneys were not always appointed, however, or, if provided, they were poorly paid, resulting often in inadequate representation." The judges on the country's highest court are appointed by the king.

Morocco's Equity and Reconciliation Commission was set up in 2004 by King Mohammed IV to examine abuses under his father's regime, King Hassan II. One key recommendation was to create an independent judiciary, as is outlined in the country's Constitution.

In court last month, some of the defendants took the opportunity to shout to journalists in attendance about their situation. Some said that they had been tortured. The group's leader, Hassan Khattab, was rounded up in a mass arrest after the 2003 Casablanca bombings and then was freed under a broad royal pardon in 2005. Other men shouted that they, too, had been previously subject to mass arrests, which some rights groups say has netted thousands.

"I was captured after the Casablanca bombing. This is the second time they have detained me. They have destroyed my life, my family, for no reason," shouted one man standing on a bench in the defendant's box.

A Human Rights Watch report issued in 2004 about arrests and detentions in connection with the Casablanca bombings warned that Morocco's handling of the aftermath threatened the country's unprecedented reform process.

"Important elements of the progress made during the last 15 years are now endangered by the way that authorities have rounded up and imprisoned thousands of Moroccans accused of links to terrorism. The credible reports of torture and mistreatment of these suspects, and the clear denial of their civil rights during the judicial process, suggest that the broader freedoms Moroccans have enjoyed during the last decade- and-a-half can be reversed," said the report.

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