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Nation Stuck Between Fear and Regret

Morocco's government apologized for abuses, but terrorism has fueled repression again.

October 22, 2005|Megan K. Stack | Times Staff Writer

CASABLANCA, Morocco — He calls them the "citadels of death," the prisons where he watched his friends die, one by one. He was tortured and starved until even the parasites abandoned his body. And when he was finally disgorged from the government's secret detention centers, he was warned: Never speak of this, or we will put you someplace even worse.

Three decades later, Chari el Hou, an angular French teacher with a carefully knotted necktie and owlish glasses, broke his silence -- at the government's behest.

"No one can digest these pains indefinitely," Hou told a room packed tight with officials, academics and citizens in testimony broadcast late last year throughout this North African country. "And years later, I wanted to interrogate the memory of men, I wanted to get out of myself, I wanted to write. I had absolutely to have an end to that agitated past."

Hou was a single voice in the first wave of victims to publicize their suffering in hearings called by Morocco's Justice and Reconciliation Commission, which for two years has been chronicling the bloody suppression of political dissent under past kings. It's the Arab world's first attempt to acknowledge and atone for large-scale human rights violations, a rare moment in a region where catharsis is usually eclipsed by the need to keep quiet and stay out of trouble.

But even as King Mohammed VI made amends with cash compensation to the aging victims of his father and his grandfather, security agents were arresting thousands of Islamists, hustling them through mass trials and locking them in prisons.

The crackdown, sparked by a series of suicide blasts that shook Casablanca in May 2003, has left many Moroccans asking how much the country has really changed.

"The real question is whether we're entering an era in which these things won't happen again. And we can't be sure of that," said Fouad Abdelmouni, a former political prisoner who runs a successful micro-loan program in Rabat.

"We see that these things are still happening. We see that the system is still the same. We still have authorities that are not responsible for their actions."

The contradictory state of human rights in Morocco is an instructive sketch of how extremist attacks can shift accepted ideas about justice, civil liberties and government. People here say "May 16," the date of the attacks, with a knowing look. It hangs in the language, overflowing with meaning, the way Sept. 11 looms in the American imagination.

When the broken glass had been swept away and the bodies lain in the earth, things had changed in this country where religion and poverty have long made a volatile mix. It's difficult to trace social currents here without bumping into the Casablanca carnage, without being reminded of the 45 people who died and how the attacks have reverberated through society.

Veteran human rights lawyer Mohamed Sebbar explains the change this way: Before the Casablanca attacks, the king was focused on reform and reconciliation, and security services were no longer ascendant.

But the bombings turned the kingdom's priorities upside down. The palace smelled a new threat, and security and intelligence forces won back their old leeway.

"The most important thing was to eradicate this movement, to show that the state was able to eradicate it," Sebbar said. "If you had a beard, an abaya, any external sign, you were detained. So many people were detained."

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The relationship between the Moroccan government and the nation's outspoken Islamists was wobbly long before the Casablanca suicide attacks.

Fundamentalist Islam had been gaining strength as a political force for decades in Morocco, as ideas imported from Saudi Arabia and neighboring Algeria gained traction with Morocco's young, poor and frustrated populace and as radicalized volunteers filtered home from the Afghan war against the Soviets.

The populist, anti-corruption rhetoric of Islamist organizations has emerged as a challenge to the king's authority. The massive semi-clandestine group Justice and Charity combines grass-roots activism, such as dishing soup for the poor, with occasional, vast street demonstrations, lest anybody doubt its might.

Justice and Charity decries Morocco's monarchy as a corrupt, coldhearted autocracy. In a recent meeting in a sun-flooded sitting room, spokeswoman Nadia Yassine bluntly advocated the replacement of the monarchy with an Islamic democracy.

"We undermine the system, slowly but surely," said Yassine, flashing a sweet, closed-lip smile. "We put into question the legitimacy of the Islamic claims of the regime. We contest the legitimacy of their power."

The same story has unfolded throughout the Arab world in recent decades as the street credibility of Islamist leaders has grown. Some Arab governments relied on torture, repression and mass arrest to quell the rising political tide.

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