Struggling against the Years of Lead
A testimony and the hope for the future of human rights in Morocco
Thank you for the opportunity to share the story of a Moroccan family's struggle against oppression and for democracy. I will first provide a brief history of human rights violations and disappearances in Morocco, commonly known as the Years of Lead, second, I will share my family's struggle together with human rights' advocates and organizations in Morocco.
The Years of Lead or the “black years” refer to the years of Hassan II's reign, from 1961 when his father Mohammed V died, to his own death in July 1999. During these years, officials acting on behalf of the Alaouite monarchy have tortured, kidnapped, arrested and murdered without a trace thousands of victims. In a literal sense, the Years of Lead refer to the bullets that security forces fired at unarmed citizens during demonstrations and uprisings; figuratively it has come to designate a time of fear, state terror, and the victimization of thousands of innocent people—men, women and children. This gruesome state of affairs began right after independence and the first targets were pre-independence political parties who yearned to be part of the political game and have a share of power with the monarchy, in particular the Istiqlal party (the party who led the struggle against the colonial powers and whose name means independence in Arabic) and the Union Nationale des Forces Populaires, which was an offshoot of the Istiqlal party and led by Mehdi Ben Barka, a charismatic leader who Hassan II perceived as a threat to his power and whose actual fate remains unknown, despite some evidence (by credible witnesses) that he was kidnapped in Paris, killed by Moroccan security forces in concert with French, American and Israeli agents, and his body was dissolved in a vat of acid.
The exact number of victims of the years of lead is difficult to pinpoint but estimates point to 50,000 people. During the Years of Lead the violence targeted leftists militants more than any other group by today, since the events of Casablanca in 2003, repression targets the Islamists mostly but also human rights advocates, leftist and Saharawi militants, a repression that is made possible thanks to the makhzen, the political police apparatus that King Hassan II consolidated during his rule.
1) establish the truth (through testimonies and interviews with victims and their families);
2) provide recommendations aimed at preserving public memory and guarantee a genuine rupture with the abusive practices of the past, erase the scars of the violations and restore and reinforce trust in the State and respect of human rights;
3) foster reconciliation, defined as “the contribution to the culture of dialogue in order to consolidate the democratic transition and a state where the law rules, in order to promote civic values and a culture of human rights.
The IER organized and held a series of public testimonies where victims and/or surviving members of families have been invited to speak about their respective ordeals, tell their story of disappearance, torture or arrest but with strict instructions not to assign responsibility. Recent information suggests that the king had specifically requested from the IER that two conditions be respected: one related to the memory of his father, King Hassan II, that he is not named as responsible for any of the violations so that his memory is not sullied. The second condition is intimately connected to the first and relates to the naming of perpetrators during the testimonies. Therefore, witnesses were prohibited from invoking individual responsibilities or naming of torturers, even if they knew them by name. In its constitution, the IER is referred to as a non-judicial body. Pierre Hazan explains that the future leaders of the IER, Driss Benzekri, Salah Ed-Ouadie and Driss el Yazami made a deal with the king:
They accepted the price to be paid: the absence of punishment of those who had committed human rights abuses. For these human rights activists, renouncing justice was easier to accept because 'the conditions for an impartial process for the perpetrators and those that gave the orders are not feasible due to the lack of a proper judicial system,' [...] They also believed that without an alliance with the palace, no way existed to pursue democratization (4).
Given the reality that the Moroccan judicial system is corrupt, trials of perpetrators would have been a farce at best. The deal then was to eschew punishment for perpetrators in exchange for providing victims with the opportunity to tell their story publicly. In other words, at the same time that victims were recognized as such and acknowledged in their suffering, those who were responsible for their grief were shielded not only from prosecution but, most importantly, from public scrutiny and shame. What a tragic irony given the fact that the focus of the IER seems to be very much on the victims and their ordeal, as shown in the time allocated to public testimonies and their broadcasting on national television. Obviously, this did not sit well with victims and human rights activists. The following section highlights the struggle of victims and human rights advocates to secure accountability and put an end to impunity.
(1) Exposing the truth (the extent of the violations, their conditions and consequences) and establishing responsibilities (state, the institution of the monarchy, the army, and different police and security forces).
(2) Putting an end to impunity by bringing criminal charges against those found guilty
(3) Achieving equity, which includes reparations (financial as well as moral, individual and collective) and the preservation of public memory (memorials for victims and a public official apology presented to the victims and society as a whole).
(4) Initiating reform (institutional, educational and other) to ensure the “never again” as well as the establishing of the rule of the law.
(5) Ensuring that the conversation about political crimes includes economic crimes as well as these two are intimately linked.
During the Years of Lead, fear was the Moroccan regime's modus operandi so even talking with or about neighbors or friends involved in politics could then be interpreted as a crime and become an excuse of arrest, torture or kidnapping. Fear produces silence and political silence produces historical amnesia, so entire generations were growing up in total ignorance of the recent history of their country or had partial or distorted knowledge of it. So, the public hearings that the IER organized in several cities across the country become the occasion for the nation as a whole to come face to face with the horrors of its past and be acquainted with its history. For those who testified, it was time for recognition and acknowledgment, it was time to break the vow of silence.
The main problem with the IER, then, is that it was solely focused on the victims, not those responsible for the suffering of the victims. Thus because its mandate was restricted in terms of its scope, the IER was unable to get to the full truth about the years of lead. The exclusion of perpetrators from the process was not accidental. It was part of the deal negotiated between the monarchy and those former political prisoners who accepted to be part of the IER. The mandate of the IER did not allow for judicial prosecutions or indictment of those accused of torture, disappearance or murder of thousands of innocent citizens. Furthermore, the fact that the IER's scope was limited to victims is evidence that any truths that the State has been seeking through this process are bound to be one-sided and partial.
In short, the IER's hearings were seen as disingenuous and exclusive by many victims and human rights advocates, so the Moroccan Association of Human Rights (Association Marocaine des Droits Humains, AMDH) and the FMVJ sponsored alternative public hearings. Hazan notes that “a number of former victims, human rights activists, Islamists, and most of the victims from the Western Sahara complained that the IER had granted impunity to the torturers and their superiors. They accused the IER of distorting transitional mechanisms to protect those responsible for the repressive system—if not whitewashing their past then sparing them any punishment”(6). In these alternative hearings held in 2005 (February-July), which the government did not allow to be televised or broadcasted through media outlets, victims were allowed to name their torturers and even implicate those who still hold high office in the government. These events, held in several cities across the country as well as France, were held under the slogan: “Completely Free Testimonies for Truth.” The naming of perpetrators is primarily symbolic since the AMDH does not have judicial power, but unlike the IER hearings, these had credibility as naming sought accountability from those responsible for the death and suffering of innocent people. Shielding perpetrators of atrocities provides them with impunity, which should not be the case in a society that is democratizing. Hidden from public view, public naming of perpetrators became part of securing and recognizing that truth, which would be the beginning of serving justice for the victims of the Years of Lead.
A recently published report by Amnesty International evaluating the Moroccan state's effort to deal with the legacy of the human rights abuses of the Years of Lead states:
major shortcoming of the IER truth-seeking process is its offer of only partial truths: truths as seen and lived by the victims and their families, without including in its work the narratives and perspectives of the perpetrators and the forces behind such human rights violations. This timidity was perhaps out of fear that unveiling the whole truth would lead to unacceptable conclusions, from the perspective of the Moroccan authorities, about the monarchy and about individuals who continue to hold powerful positions of authority thereby, shaking the fundaments of the country's political structure (5).
The mandate of the IER states that the commission will seek to determine “the responsibility of governmental entities, or others, for the violations, and the facts under investigation.” The conducted investigations and testimonies led to the collection of a huge amount of information and archival material but all of this information is incomplete, highly partial in both senses of the term. While one could argue that some aspect of forensic (partial) truth has been achieved, this is not the truth that victimized citizens have been seeking. The truth they have been seeking is a validation of their experience, a recognition of the injustice they suffered. As observers, we only know what happened to whom, not who did what to whom. Responsibilities have not been assigned because the perpetrators of the violations have been provided anonymity and truth has not really been sought, nor has any kind of justice been achieved as those responsible have been provided with immunity and impunity.
My uncle, Aziz Menebhi, was in political exile for almost 20 years after he was kidnapped, disappeared for over a year and then released to be sought again. Aziz was the UNEM president before his kidnapping and quite a charismatic leader in the leftist movement in the early 1970s. Kidnapped in January 1973 he was finally released in August 1976. . During his 13 months in forcible disappearance, Aziz was subjected to all kinds of torture which affected his health so much that he feared he was on the verge of death. In fact, he developed a rare disease called Behcet, an ailment that damages blood vessels throughout the body. He fled to France to seek medical treatment when they tried to arrest him again. He will learn about his sister Saida's death in France. My grandmother's pain and suffering is similar to that of the mothers who told their stories this morning.
The death of my aunt Saida Menebhi at age 25 was the most tragic event in the family. Saida was kidnapped from her home in January 1975 and kept in arbitrary arrest for 4 month. To protest her and others political prisoners' treatment as criminals, Saida started a hunger strike in November 1977 that lasted 44 days, after which her health deteriorated dramatically and physicians denied her care because she was a political dissident. Thirty-three years later, she is still remembered as a symbol of courage and an inspiration for women and human rights activists in Morocco and beyond.
Tomorrow December 11th marks the 33RD anniversary of the death of Saida. On this occasion, to honor her, I will share with you one of the poems she wrote in prison.
On your pale face
Grave of pain
Tomorrow my comrade
We will see far away
Towards the horizon, towards
The rising sun
In my guts I feel it
And my heart breaks
Partner of combat
The mountain awaits us
With all the revolutionaries
All the innocent people
And those who want
To face the challenge
Do not cry comrade
Whose vulnerable voice
Makes the heart beats
Of all combatants
Your transparent tears
Leave them for the new day
Because we will cry of joy
Where our dear land
Returns to us.
Do not cry comrade
Forget your pain
Is that of a Palestinian
Fighting for Jerusalem.
These acts of remembering test the values that nations profess to live by against the actual experiences and perceptions of the storyteller as witness. They issue an ethical call to listeners both within and beyond national borders to recognize the disjunction between the values espoused by the community and the actual practices that occur. They issue a call...to respond to the story; to recognize the humanity of the teller and the justice of the claim; to take responsibility for that recognition; and to find means of redress. (3)
Victims' testimonies like those we have heard today are moral weapons in the struggle against both impunity and oblivion. These stories are the most powerful tool in this struggle. These stories are heartbreaking, the names are different but the pain, the grief and the suffering of losing a son, a daughter, a husband, a wife, a father or a mother is the same, it is universal. It is important to continue to provide victims with opportunities to tell about their struggle; they stories demand justice for the past and provide a powerful reminder for younger generations to be vigilant so that the past does not reproduce itself. It is also important to encourage victims to name their torturers or perpetrators of crimes against humanity who should not be shielded from public scrutiny and judgment, at the least. Events such as this one, caravans for truth organized in Morocco, mock trials, etc raise public awareness about the past and help victims and human rights' activists gain public support for their cause.
So I say let us continue meeting and demonstrating in the streets so that arbitrary arrests, torture, disappearances and all kinds of oppression against innocent victims stop. As Saida said:
For the power of the farmer and
The power of the worker
For the love of our country.