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Nation Stuck Between Fear and Regret

Times Staff Writer

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.

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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.

But Morocco tried a different strategy. In 1996, the kingdom for the first time allowed a fundamentalist Islamic party to field candidates in legislative elections. Since then, the Justice and Development Party, or PJD, has been locked in a touchy, ambiguous game with the Moroccan government. Each side appears to barely tolerate the other -- and each seems to believe it will emerge victorious in the end.

“The best way to control these movements and to moderate them is to integrate them into the political game,” said Bouabid Brahim, a spokesman for the Justice Ministry. “Because then the fight is with ideas and not arms.”

PJD legislators rail against modernity and the West, and the party newspaper splashes angry headlines about men and women mixing at music festivals. Their rhetoric unnerves secular observers, who fear they would like to roll back women’s rights, curb alcohol consumption and introduce Islamic law. But under the contentious rhetoric, the party has remained generally obedient to the whims of the palace, and is commonly referred to as a moderate Islamist party.

“Every day the Islamist movements are gaining more ground and becoming more popular,” said Taoufik Moussaif, a lawyer and PJD activist. “But we are not in favor of radical solutions. We move gradually and respect the law.... The future,” he said, “is ours.”

That is what secular Moroccans fear. Their apprehension is rooted in the ambiguity of the debate over democracy and Islamism from Baghdad to Gaza, Cairo to Algiers: Are Islamists sincere when they call for democracy, or would they exploit democratic privileges to gain power -- only to choke off democracy and impose their vision of God’s will?

Fatiha Layadi seems to think Morocco is playing with a poisonous snake. A chain smoker who wears high heels and short skirts, Layadi is the media director for the Communications Ministry and a former television reporter. Her eyebrows arch in disdain when asked about the PJD.

Layadi doesn’t believe there is such a thing as a “soft Islamist.” She says she doesn’t trust any of them. “They want us to put on the burka and stay home,” she said.

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Hanen Alami, a bird-thin 26-year-old with huge brown eyes, a flowing black robe and tightly wound head scarf, counts her husband among those who suffered at the hands of the suicide bombers.

Optician Fahd Benkirane, 26, was detained in the massive dragnet that encircled Islamists after the blasts. He was held incommunicado, put on trial in the small hours of the morning and sentenced to 10 years in prison. He was charged with belonging to an outlawed Islamist organization, and his lawyer says he was not allowed to present evidence in his defense. His family believes he is being persecuted for his devout beliefs.

“I am sure of his innocence,” Alami said. “He is also a victim of May 16.

“I used to say, ‘Thank God we’re in Morocco, at least we’re living well here.’ But now if you are Muslim like Allah says, if you do what it says in the Koran, you’re a terrorist,” she said. “Now the Moroccan people are hating each other. When we go out with these clothes, we hear, ‘You are a terrorist.’ I used to wear a face veil, but now I can’t. In our country, it’s like a shame.”

More than 2,000 people were arrested after the bombings, most of them Islamists. Human rights groups reported cases of torture and arbitrary detention. Suspects were tried en masse. At least 17 people were sentenced to death.

As the crackdown continued, the United States increased aid to Morocco to $60 million in 2004, in part to fund its war on terrorism. Washington also praised the kingdom as a “model of tolerance.”

Some of Morocco’s longtime human rights activists see a familiar pattern in the Islamist crackdown: human rights trampled because the regime felt threatened.

Others argue that there is no moral equivalence between cruelly stifling political dissent and sensibly countering a rising, potentially violent Islamist tide.

Driss Benzekri, who spent 17 years as a political prisoner, was a 24-year-old linguistics student with leftist leanings when he was arrested. Today he wears a suit and sits in a leather chair beneath a massive photograph of the king. As the head of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, he oversees an agency that has already begun to pay out damages for the torments of the past.

“I disagree with those people who say that what is happening now with the Islamists is similar to what happened before,” Benzekri said.

“I am against terrorism. You can’t compare the fight against terrorism with what happened before.”


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