Morocco moves gradually to address past repression

The king is boosting political transparency. Critics are cautious about calling it democratization.

For 18 years, Driss Benzekri languished in a Moroccan prison. Arrested for his Marxist politics, Mr. Benzekri witnessed firsthand his government's repressive horrors: arbitrary arrests, torture, and clandestine imprisonment for King Hassan II's suspected enemies.

Yet today, Benzekri works for that same monarch's son. The former prisoner now heads the state's commission to investigate human rights violations committed between independence in 1956 and the 1990s - Morocco's "Years of Lead," so-called for the unceasing threats under which Hassan's political opponents lived.

Benzekri's experience is a tale of high personal drama, but it is also a story that symbolizes this North African nation's evolution over the past half-decade.

When Mohammed VI assumed the throne in 1999, he moved to bring transparency to the political system, curb corruption, and elevate the status of women.

Yet in a country where portraits of the king hang in every business and political opponents are still arrested, democracy is not always easy to recognize.

Mohammed VI founded the Equity and Reconciliation Commission in 2004 to investigate human rights crimes committed by the nation's police, Army, and secret services.

"Our mission is to search for the truth," Benzreki says. "To create a democratic society, people have to know the truth, to know their history. That's the way to achieve a culture of transparency, and the only way that people will know how to choose their future."

Indeed, before concluding its investigations in April, the commission analyzed 22,000 cases and compensated victims like Ammed ben Saleek, whose father and grandfather were arrested in the late 1950s, and who, while searching for them when he was 13, was himself captured and tortured.

Yet because it was not conceived as a judicial body, the commission cannot prosecute defendants. Some experts, like Lahcen Haddad, a professor and civil society activist who worked with the commission, say that decision properly separates the commission's investigative task from the judicial system's obligations.

Besides, says Mr. Haddad, "Individuals can publish in the press the names of those they accuse, and they can pursue justice through the court system."

To date, no one has been charged or tried, and in their testimony, victims were not allowed to name their torturers. As a result, some say the hearings were more a token than a genuine attempt to take responsibility for the past.

But supporters of gradual reform in Morocco, perhaps the most promising ally in the Arab world for both the US and Europe, assert that change occurs in increments, and that the process is the best way to avoid political upheaval and assure stability in North Africa and around the Mediterranean.

The changing status of women underscores the contradictory nature of the country's endeavor to become more democratic. Shortly after ascending the throne, Mohammed VI appointed the first-ever female Royal Counselor, and in 2002 he reserved seats for 30 female candidates in parliamentary elections.

The government is most proud of its recent Family Code. Approved in 2003, the law makes wives equal to their husbands, granting them shared ownership of assets and allowing them to divorce. For longtime women's rights activist Nezha Chekrouni, it was a fundamental shift. "It means we're moving from a logic of dominator and dominated, to a logic based on dignity," she says.

But before the law was ratified, Islamist groups vigorously protested its erosion of key Muslim principles governing relations between the sexes. Only after the Casablanca bombings, when such groups felt it necessary to demonstrate their loyalty, did their opposition evaporate, and parliament unanimously approved the code.

Discrepancies between word and deed, however, frequently have undermined reforms. Last year, Mohammed VI promised to support a "professional, free, and credible media" - a pledge, say some journalists, that has led to changes including a new policy guaranteeing freedom of the press "in conformity with the law."

But in its 2005 report on Morocco, Reporters Without Borders cited a poll indicating that 80 percent of the country's journalists did not feel free to write about any subject.

"We've managed to cross some of the old red lines," says Driss Ksikes, editor-in-chief of the Casablanca-based political magazine Tel Quel. "But while the practice of freedom is clear, the legal guarantee ... is not there. The king is still sacred...."

Fatiha Ladayi, director of communication at the Ministry of Communication, counters such skepticism. "Democracy is not a kit," she says. "You can't simply apply the same model to everyone."

While Morocco may have planted seeds of democracy, for now at least, the country remains ambivalent. Mr. Ksikes isn't sure what to expect a decade hence. "I wouldn't necessarily say that we are in a process of democratization. I would say we are in a process. Full stop."

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