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In 2001, Morocco's opposition faced an increasingly aggressive government campaign to stamp out political dissent. Islamists and other human rights activists, who seized upon the more tolerant atmosphere that accompanied the accession of King Mohammad VI in 1999, found themselves the target of repression reminiscent of the late King Hassan's reign. But in light of attempts by the new king and his government to root out corruption, improve human rights, and rectify past abuses, the crackdown suggests that Hassan's powerful cronies, suspicious of any dissent, still play an influential role in the military and security services.
Morocco gained independence as a hereditary monarchy in 1956 after 44 years of French rule. Upon the death of his father, Mohammad V, in 1961, Hassan II assumed the throne and began a gradual and limited evolution of democratic institutions. Nevertheless, power remained highly centralized in the hands of the king, who appoints the prime minister and may dissolve the legislature at his discretion. Constitutional amendments passed in 1996 provide for a bicameral legislature with an upper house elected indirectly from various local government bodies and professional associations, and a 325-member, directly elected lower house, or house of representatives.
In March 1998, King Hassan responded to criticism of widespread fraud in the 1997 parliamentary elections by appointing a coalition government led by opposition socialist leader and former political prisoner Abderrahmane Youssoufi. Prime Minister Youssoufi leads a center-left government with broad support in the house of representatives. Pledging to transform Morocco's bleak human rights record, he has pursued a reformist program emphasizing social spending and respect for human rights. However, cabinet loyalists retained by the king restricted Youssoufi's ability to implement his agenda.
Hassan died in July 1999, leaving Mohammad VI a country with severe economic and social problems. Twenty percent of the population is unemployed, nearly half are illiterate, and a third live below the poverty line. The economy is heavily dependent on agriculture, and thus at the mercy of rainfall. A huge government debt threatens social spending, while some 50 percent of the budget pays for public sector salaries. Poverty has led to widespread grassroots support for Islamists, who traditionally step in with charity where the government fails to provide for its people.
Mohammad has attempted to win back public support by focusing primarily on socioeconomic issues. He has allocated funds for development projects in poverty-stricken areas and paid visits to rural communities to promote national reconciliation. The government has also taken steps toward political and economic liberalization. Upon taking power, Mohammad dismissed Driss Basri, the hardline interior minister apparently responsible for years of repression under Hassan. Freedom of expression and the press improved. Thousands of prisoners were freed, and exiled dissidents returned. A human rights center was established in 2000, and a state commission began issuing compensation to victims of past political repression. In addition, the government began privatizing state industries. The privatization of 35 percent of Maroc Telecoms in early 2001 was hailed by the International Monetary Fund as open and transparent.
But when opposition activists took advantage of the new mood of relative tolerance and intensified their calls for human rights, accountability for past abuses, and a truth commission, the military and security forces backtracked. The crackdown began with the arrests of some 800 people nationwide in December 2000 for participating in unauthorized demonstrations to mark the annual UN Human Rights Day. Thirty-six members of the Moroccan Association for Human Rights spent most of 2001 in court defending their participation in the demonstrations before being acquitted by an appeals court in November. The banned Islamist Justice and Charity group saw more than 100 of its members jailed during 2001, also in connection with the protests, and its newspaper and website banned. In January, officials ordered mosques closed after evening prayers-when Muslims traditionally gather for political discussion-in an effort to stamp out organized dissent. Journalists faced ongoing intimidation throughout the year as they were arrested or threatened, their newspapers seized, banned, or censored.
The evident gap between the government's proclaimed commitment to human rights and the current reality on the streets suggests a conflict within Morocco's power structure. However, attempts at liberalization may present a challenge to the old ruling elite. After the memoir of a former prisoner in one of King Hassan's secret detention facilities drew widespread attention in 2001, Mohammad allowed visits to the detention center and compensated former detainees. In January 2001, Prime Minister Youssoufi set up a judicial investigation after a parliamentary report found evidence that more than $1 billion was diverted to cronies of the old regime through a state bank, Credit Immobilier et Hotelier (CIH), over the course of ten years. Named targets of the investigation include prominent political, union, and business leaders. The parliamentary report said that 52 state firms, mostly in real estate and tourism, may have misappropriated loans. In February, the government announced a larger campaign, involving media and nongovernmental organizations, against corruption. The CIH investigation is being closely watched by observers; its outcome-whether powerful political figures or just bank officials are punished-will be a good indication of the balance of power between reformers and old-guard hardliners in the political establishment.
Moroccans' right to change their government democratically is limited. Although the house of representatives was elected in largely free balloting in 1997, its power is balanced by the 270-member upper house of parliament (Chamber of Advisors) and limited by the legal and de facto powers of the royal palace. The constitution grants vast executive power to the king, who rules through a cabinet of ministers. Constitutional reform that would delineate executive authority, strengthen the legislature, and boost judicial independence would require the king's approval, and no reform appears imminent. Corruption and political interference pervade civil institutions, rendering them unfit to take on the responsibilities of governance. Provincial and local officials are appointed, while less powerful municipal councils are elected. Transparency and accountability are largely nonexistent.
Arbitrary arrest and detention occur, and prosecutors may extend administrative detention for up to a year. The king regularly pardons hundreds of prisoners during national and religious holidays. In November 2001, authorities released 56 political prisoners, including Mohamed Daddach, a Sahrawi whom Amnesty International called the longest-serving prisoner of conscience in Morocco. Dozens of other political prisoners remain in detention. The Moroccan Prison Observatory, an umbrella organization of local human rights groups, issued a report in May 2001 denouncing "rampant" corruption, violence, disease, and sexual abuse in Morocco's 44 prisons. According to the report, some 80,000 detainees, including children as young as 12, are crowded into prisons designed for less than half that number with inadequate food, sanitation, and medical care. Human rights groups continue to call for independent investigations of torture, disappearances, and other abuses against opposition activists in the 1970s. A commission set up in 1999 to compensate victims of abuse and the families of disappeared opposition activists began settling cases in 2000. The commission has received almost 6,000 cases.
The judiciary is subject to corruption, bureaucracy, and government interference. Although judicial reform has been identified as a high priority of the government, progress has been slow. Judges have been referred to disciplinary panels for punishment as a result of investigations into alleged corruption and misconduct. A number have been disbarred. In 2001, an ombudsman was established to investigate citizens' complaints about abuses involving the judiciary.
The press code allows confiscation and censorship of publications for libel, offensive reporting, or national security violations. The law also prohibits criticism of the monarchy, Islam, and Moroccan claims to Western Sahara. Broadcast media are mostly government controlled, and those that are not practice self-censorship. Foreign broadcasting is available via satellite. Violations against independent media, which increased sharply at the end of 2000, continued throughout 2001. In March, two directors of Le Journal Hebdomadaire were convicted of defaming the foreign minister and sentenced to two and three months' imprisonment. The student newspaper of the Islamic Justice and Charity group was seized in April. The editor of the weekly Demain magazine was threatened in July, its director sentenced to four months' imprisonment in November, and the magazine itself suspended indefinitely in December. Demain had criticized the royal family and alleged Youssoufi's involvement in an old plot to kill King Hassan. The foreign press suffered as well. Issues of two French papers were banned, and an article on ethnic Berbers was censored out of one paper's Moroccan edition. Issues of the Spanish El Mundo and Cambio 16, and Epoca were banned, and an Epoca photographer detained for coverage of Western Sahara. Authorities blocked access to Justice and Charity's website beginning in April. Internet access is mostly unrestricted, but prohibitively expensive for most Moroccans.
The interior ministry requires permits for public gatherings, and peaceful protests are usually tolerated. Morocco has 18 legal political parties, seven of which are part of the governing coalition. Under Mohammad, Islamists have assumed a more prominent role, circulating literature and staging demonstrations. Authorities released Justice and Charity leader Abdessalam Yassine from more than ten years of house arrest in May 2000. However, Justice and Charity, which is said to be the largest Islamist group, remains banned, and Islamists and other human rights activists campaigning for improved rights and redress of past grievances were suppressed during 2001. About 130 members of Justice and Charity were jailed by courts in several Moroccan cities during the first half of the year for their participation in demonstrations marking Human Rights Day in December 2000. In May, 30 members of the Moroccan Association for Human Rights were sentenced to prison terms of three months and fined for taking part in the same demonstrations. An appeals court cleared them in November, but Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch urged authorities to guarantee the right to assembly and peaceful demonstration in law. Mosques were closed after evening prayers in January to prevent public gatherings where politics might be discussed.
Although many women pursue careers in the professions or in government, they face restrictions in advancement. Women's personal status is governed by the moudouwana, a code based on Islamic law that discriminates against women in divorce and inheritance matters. Efforts to reform the personal status code have stalled because of resistance from Islamists and conservative factions. A 2000 government draft law to ban polygamy, raise the legal age of marriage, and grant women greater protection in divorce was shelved after massive demonstrations by conservative Islamists. In April 2001, King Mohammad set up a commission to work on reforming the moudouwana, but no progress was made by year's end. Domestic violence is said to be common, though much of it goes unreported. A victim's family may offer her rapist the opportunity to marry her to protect her honor, and the law is relatively lenient toward a man who claims he has killed his wife for adultery.
Islam is Morocco's official religion, and some 99 percent of Moroccans are Sunni Muslims. The government closely monitors mosque activities. Christianity and Judaism are tolerated and generally practiced freely. Proselytizing by Christians is prohibited; Bahais may not practice or participate in communal activities.
Some 60 percent of Moroccans claim Berber heritage. Increasing tolerance by the government has resulted in the establishment of numerous Berber cultural associations. Such groups criticize government policies that make Arabic the only officially recognized language and prohibit the teaching of the Berber language, Tamazight, in schools. In June 2001, authorities prohibited Berbers from holding a public meeting to discuss strategies for promoting their rights. Nevertheless, progress continues. In July, King Mohammad announced the establishment of a royal cultural institute that would work toward integrating Tamazight into public education. And in September the king ruled that translators must be available at trials of Berbers and expatriates who do not speak Arabic.
Morocco's heavily unionized formal labor sector includes 17 umbrella federations, some of which are aligned with political parties and all of which are subject to political pressure. Workers may bargain collectively and strike. UNICEF has investigated child labor in Morocco, where more than a million children, including some younger than six years, work in poor conditions for slave wages. Physical abuse of child laborers is reportedly common. The U.S. State Department estimates that more than 10,000 children work as prostitutes in Casablanca alone. The government has announced plans to fine parents if their children skip school, but most observers are skeptical about the authorities' ability to enforce the measure.