July 13, 2006

Decades on, Moroccan torture victims want answers

By Tom Pfeiffer

RABAT (Reuters) - Abdennaceur Bnouhachem's work as a
left-wing student activist came to an abrupt end on April 13,
1976 when plainclothed security officers cornered him in the
street and bundled him into an unmarked van.

Bnouhachem said he was blindfolded and driven to a
detention center where he and four friends were tortured for
three days. He was hung from a steel pole and beaten, then held
under water until he nearly drowned.

He was then transferred to a prison in southern Morocco
where he endured beatings and starvation rations for almost
nine years before he was freed without any explanation.

Years later Bnouhachem, who now works at the government
broadcasting authority, was awarded 1 million dirhams
($114,500) for his ordeal, but says the money will not erase
his memories.

"No sum of money can make up for nine years of my life ...
We must know why these officials kidnapped five students and
threw them into hell."

In 2004 it seemed his questions might finally be answered
after King Mohammed announced the Arab world's first truth
commission to investigate rights abuses during the 38-year
reign of his father King Hassan -- a period known as the "years
of lead."

The young king had already shown a desire to break with the
past in 1999, a few weeks into his reign, when he allowed
political exile Abraham Serfaty to return home, released an
opposition leader from house arrest and sought to heal
relations with the rebellious and neglected Rif region in the

Five years later, the independent Equity and Reconciliation
Commission (IER) was launched to shed light on hundreds of
disappearances and thousands of arbitrary imprisonments.

Commission members were given the power to collect evidence
from state officials and held hearings where victims revealed
in harrowing detail abuses once flatly denied by authorities.

But unlike dozens of similar bodies that followed civil
wars or government changes in countries from South Africa to
Rwanda to Chile, the IER could not name or judge the guilty.

Officials said rummaging too deep into the past could
revive old tensions and, anyway, a court could never clarify
events that took place up to 50 years ago.

Human rights groups say another reason is many of those who
gave the orders still hold senior jobs in the administration.

"The commission was analysing and judging the era of the
king's father. It's rather delicate," said Mohamed Nesh-Nash,
vice president of the Moroccan Human Rights Organization
(OMDH), which took part in the commission.


The commission's report recommended reforms to make the
security services more accountable, make judges more
independent and better trained and guarantee civil freedoms.
King Mohammed has vowed to act on its findings.

Recent media reports say some of the governing parties are
already making plans for constitutional changes, and the
government says judicial reforms will occur in the coming year.

Government spokesman Nabil Benabdallah said constitutional
safeguards would be part of a broader reform of the
constitution being debated by Morocco's political parties.

"His majesty the King is taking account of all this debate
and it will be carried through once the opportunity presents
itself and the conditions are better," Benabdallah told

Government officials say there has been a clear improvement
in the behavior of the security forces and judicial apparatus.

But rights groups say abuses are still happening on a
smaller scale. They point to protests by students and lawyers
which they say were repressed violently, and the arbitrary
arrests of suspected Western Sahara independence activists.

They also say hundreds of Islamists have been arrested to
face ill-treatment or unfair trials since 2003, when suicide
bombings killed 45 in the economic capital Casablanca.

"For the good of democracy and the stability of Morocco,
reforms must happen before the (parliamentary) elections in
2007," said Nesh-Nash.


The IER received 16,861 files to probe and confirmed at
least 9,779 cases of rights abuses including deaths and
injuries in detention, extra-judicial killings and forced
disappearances. It identified the tombs of 85 people, some of
them army officers who tried to topple King Hassan and were
held in secret prisons.

Rights groups say the IER's figures were still far from

"Families whose relatives were interred secretly have the
right to give them a proper burial," said Mohamed Sektaoui,
head of Amnesty International's Rabat office. "Only the future
will judge whether the IER has succeeded in guaranteeing

Some 66 disappearances remain unsolved including the most
famous, that of opposition leader Mehdi Ben Barka who fled into
exile during the early years of independence and was seized in
front of a cafe in Paris's Latin Quarter in 1965.

In 2001, French daily Le Monde cited a former Moroccan
secret service agent as saying Ben Barka's body was dissolved
in acid in Rabat after he died at the hands of torturers in

In the 1960s, France denied its secret services or police
were involved. A French judge is now investigating the case.

"You cannot guarantee stability by forgetting," said
Bnouhachem. "To forget is a great danger for the people. We
must know all the truth."