City of roses, city of torture

The case of the Belgian-Moroccan national Ali Aarrass shines a spotlight on persistent human rights violations and the existence of torture prisons in Morocco. While the monarchy remains silent, the public deliberately looks the other way. By Susanne Kaiser

By Susanne Kaiser

"The main thing was there was no light, not even the tiniest ray of light," recalls Aziz Binebine, who was forced to live for 18 years in total darkness in a tiny cell measuring no more than three metres. Heat, cold, rotting food, scorpions, the slowly advancing deformation of the body – utterly defenceless against these adversities, he nevertheless survived.

The Moroccan writer Tahar Ben Jelloun took up his story in the novel ″This Blinding Absence of Light″ published in 2001, which bore belated witness to what had been going on in Morocco's subterranean torture chambers for twenty years. Binebine was one of six gravely ill survivors to be liberated from Tazmamart′ notorious Block B in the year 1991. The then monarch, King Hassan II, was forced to admit to the existence of secret jails such as Tazmamart – the worst prison in Morocco's central eastern region – in the face of international pressure.

The 23 remaining detainees, imprisoned there along with Binebine in the early 1970s, would never again see the light of day. They had been simple low-ranking members of the army, officers and sergeants locked up in an act of revenge by the King after the failure of two coup attempts against his royal despotism.

″Years of lead″

Almost a quarter of a century has gone by since this era, recorded in the history of Morocco as the "years of lead" (from the 1960s until the early 1990s), a time characterised by the excessive repression, persecution and torture of political dissidents – rebels, Western Sahara activists, leftists, teachers and students.

A "truth commission" has now been in place for more than 10 years, aimed at processing and making amends for the innumerable human rights violations dating from the period. More than 20,000 applications for compensation have been received by the commission, as its concluding report makes clear. But not a single historical perpetrator has since been called to account.

Morocco′s former sovereign, King Hassan II (photo: picture-alliance/dpa)
Shadows of the past: during the reign of King Hassan II, thousands of political detainees were subject to human rights violations on a massive scale. A truth commission was set up in December 2004 to give victims the opportunity to speak about their experience, thereby shedding some light on this dark chapter. As well as compensating those who suffered arbitrary imprisonment, kidnap and similar rights abuses, the commission was also concerned with the psychological and physiological rehabilitation of victims, supporting them through the process of solving any administrative, professional and legal problems following their release from captivity, or their reappearance following abduction

The son of Hassan and his successor, Mohammed VI, praised as a "reformist King" and the reigning monarch since 1999, set up the truth commission as a way of ensuring that the Tazmamart story would never be repeated.

Yet even today, 21 years after Morocco′s ratification of the UN Convention against Torture and the beginning of a new era of collective recollection and processing of the "years of lead", torture continues to be widespread in Morocco. One example of this is the case of Ali Aarrass, currently on hunger strike in protest at the inhumane conditions of his detention at the Sale II prison near Rabat.

Ali Aarrass' report bears witness to the terrible conditions facing political prisoners in Morocco: "I was suspended by my hands and feet, then they beat me all over. They hit me so hard on my head that my eardrum burst. They repeatedly pretended to drown me: every time I lost consciousness I was revived and the procedure started again – it went on and on. Doctors in white coats also injected me with mysterious substances. I had the feeling I was exploding inside, that I was going mad." Aarrass is unable to talk about some of the details of his torture to this day – the memories of his traumatic experience are just too fresh.

Ali Aarass (photo: Amnesty International)
All forms of torture: Ali Aarrass reported that after his arrival in Morocco, he spent 12 days in isolation in a secret interrogation centre run by the Moroccan intelligence agency DST in Temara, where he was tortured. He claims he was subjected to a method of torture known as "falaqa". This involves striking the soles of the feet to inflict great pain. He also says electric shocks were applied to his testicles, that he was suspended for long periods of time by his wrists and burned with cigarettes

Ali Aarrass was arrested in Spain in 2008 on suspicion of terrorism. But no proof was ever found. The Belgian-Moroccan national was however extradited to Morocco in 2010, where he was put in jail. As Amnesty International reports, he was tortured and sentenced to 15 years in prison following confessions signed under torture. The sentence was appealed and reduced to 12 years. But Aarrass has not seen his young daughter since his arrest.

The statements by Aarrass and many other detainees are confirmed by Amnesty in its current report "Shadow of Impunity: Torture in Morocco and Western Sahara". Following the Casablanca attacks of 16 May 2003 alone, in which more than 40 people were killed and hundreds more injured, 2,000 terror suspects were detained. Ten of them are alleged to have been tortured at a prison in Temara, as documented by Human Rights Watch in a 2004 report "Human Rights at a Crossroads".

"In Kelaa Mgouna there's nothing but roses!"

The Moroccan authorities reject accusations of torture and maintain no such secret jail exists in Temara, where the interrogations are meant to have taken place. "The era of secret jails is past," Justice Minister Mohamed Bouzoubaa told the Moroccan press agency after the Casablanca attacks, against a backdrop of increasingly vociferous criticism of the way the state was treating suspected terrorists.

The response from the monarchy was no different in the era of Hassan II. During a television interview, Hassan II was once asked about the existence of torture prisons in places like Tazmamart and Kelaa Mgouna. Kelaa Mgouna is a small town in the Atlas Mountains, famous for its rose products and tourist industry. On a hill close by is a prison where – as we now know – torture was carried out for decades. The King feigned ignorance, shrugged his shoulders and answered: "In Kelaa Mgouna there's nothing but roses!"

Susanne Kaiser

© 2016

Translated from the German by Nina Coon