RABAT, Morocco (AP) — Morocco's justice system overly relies on coerced confessions in politically-tinged trials and needs serious reform, Human Rights Watch said in a report released Friday.
It describes six cases which the group said didn't follow international norms of due process and allegedly involved confessions coerced from defendants and judges who ignored claims of torture. "There is a complicity between the judges and police," said Eric Goldstein, deputy director of Human Rights Watch's North Africa division, describing how police allegedly coerce confessions, then present them to court. "The judges are in a hurry to convict based on that without looking for other evidence."
Morocco's judicial system has long been criticized, and the king himself promised reform in 2009 — a cry that was later taken up by the moderate Islamist party that dominated the 2011 elections and now runs the government. However, in the year and a half the new government has been in power, the reform is still being studied.
The Justice Ministry referred all questions over the report's findings to the minister himself, Mustapha Ramid, who couldn't immediately be reached for comment. Human Rights Watch said he declined to meet with its officials as they prepared the report.
In their official response to the group's findings, which was included in the report, the Moroccan government maintained it "provides all internationally recognized guarantees" for a fair trial and said it was common for defendants to make unfounded allegations of torture.
While using torture to produce confessions is illegal in Morocco, United Nations envoy Juan Mendez said during his visit to last year noted that it does take place. "The torture and ill-treatment of suspects in custody and specifically under interrogation remains a problem in Morocco, as affirmed by the U.N. special rapporteur on torture after his mission to morocco September 2012," the Human Rights Watch report said, adding that these cases showed the existing challenges for any judicial reform.
Goldstein asserted during the news conference presenting the report that the use of coerced confessions could not be generalized to all criminal trials in Morocco, but that HRW's research has shown it is common in politically-tinged cases, such as those involving political activists. The cases detailed in the report include those of Western Sahara activists charged in police deaths, labor activists involved in demonstrations, pro-democracy activists, and politicians accused of terrorism.
The news conference featured video testimonies of former defendants describing how they were beaten in police custody until they signed confessions that they often hadn't read. According to experts interviewed by The Associated Press, judges often come under pressure from the state in such trials to rely solely on the police reports, refuse the calling of other witnesses and rule quickly.
Morocco's constitution was amended on July 1 to strengthen the judiciary and make it a branch of its own on par with the legislative and executive ones, and no longer under the direct authority of the Justice Ministry. Those moves have yet to be implemented.
Mohammed Anbar, the vice president of the Judges' Club, an organization of judges formed in 2011 pushing for greater judicial independence, told the AP that in sensitive cases judges have to rule for the prosecution because of the enormous power the ministry wields over their salary and position.
"If the judges don't use the (coerced confessions in the) police report, they will make many problems for the judge," he said, adding that one of the demands of his organization is to change the penal code to ensure lawyers are present during the questioning of suspects.
Goldstein said that with political upheavals of the Arab Spring in North Africa since 2011, reforming the justice system has been a main priority because of its role in supporting dictatorship in the past.
"As Morocco has reformed slowly over the last 20 years, the laggard has been the justice system, and here we are in the middle of the debate, and we are trying to bring a contribution to that debate," he said.