Asharq Al Awsat, Rabat – An untimely death prevented Driss Benzekri, the godfather of Morocco’s Equity and Reconciliation Committee (ERC), from announcing the end of a series of ‘Jabr al Darrar’* developments. These huge and long-standing efforts had sought to compensate Moroccans who had been subjected to human rights abuses in the past. These same efforts were responsible for providing financial compensation for all the victims of human rights violations from the past, in return for the deep pain and hardships they had endured. Notwithstanding, some of the victims settled for the ‘symbolic dirham’ [the sum of one Moroccan Dirham (MAD)] compensation for the long years of oppression spent behind the prison bars of public and secret prisons.
To be a victim of injustice is a deeply wounding experience. Moreover, when detention lasts for several years, this sense becomes magnified and transforms into vengeful and intolerant thoughts. This was precisely the sentiments shared by the political prisoners before they agreed to accept reparations. Initially, they had demanded disclosure of the truth and insisted on holding the torturers accountable for their actions. But the compensation came in the form of the state’s oblique admission of the fault it had committed at the expense of a whole generation.
This August, some of these victims of oppression made their way to the Moroccan Consultative Council for Human Rights to hear Ahmed Harzani’s address. Harzani, a Moroccan activist, had been appointed to succeed Benzekri as head of the council. The two men had enjoyed an old and close friendship throughout the years.
Despite the small turnout for Harzani’s speech, people listened attentively when he announced that 11,706 of the victims had received financial compensation – seven of whom accepted the ‘symbolic dirham’ compensation. Twelve thousand families received medical insurance, while 814 individuals were socially reintegrated and 502 saw the settlement of their administrative files.
The new head of the council said, “The intention was not to reconcile between the victims and those responsible for the violations, but rather the aim is a reconciliation on a social and political level.”
One of the seven people who had accepted symbolic compensation was the poet Salah al Wadi’, who had endured long years at the Kenitra Central Prison (north of Rabat). He later worked with Benzekri at the ERC and presently heads the committee. When al Wadi’ entered the room, he was greeted by people with whom he had shared memories of resistance and detention, or with whom he had spent many sleepless nights in an endless search through archived material to reveal the truth about four decades of human right’s violations in Morocco.
Al Wadi’ said: “Opting for the symbolic dirham stems from specific considerations, which are not contradictory with the victims’ demands for compensation, or with their attainment of that reparation. The matter cannot be divorced from history; namely my family’s history and especially the two people who have left an imprint on my life: My late mother and father. They taught me how to lead the course of my life and to struggle to seek and attain all that is beautiful and free in life. My late mother, Tooriya al Siqat, and my late father, Mohamed al Wadi’ al Asfi, both of whom are descendents of the Moroccan nationalist movement are also among the founders of the democratic movement. Also, my siblings, who have been, and still are, a model for solidarity and moral and financial support.”
The Moroccan poet told Asharq Al-Awsat that, “there exists a historical gesture, which is represented through my appointment at the ERC. It marks the end of a painful time and opens a door into the future for rebuilding Morocco, my country. My appointment came at the hands of a humane king, an activist for the sake of democracy and one who possesses rare political courage.”
Al Wadi’ stressed that although he had assumed this elevated post, he would never abandon the rights and cause of the victims – since he was one of them. He stated that he would cherish the ‘symbolic dirham’ bequeathed to him and that he will pass it on to his children in the future.
He added: “There is a coincidence that cannot be explained; that is, perhaps, an exceptional incident.” Al Wadi’ related how cadres from the ERC had found a rusty dirham at the Akdz cemetery in southern Morocco while they were conducting investigations there. They handed it over to al Wadi’, who noted its symbolic significance and wondered, “Could this be a sign from those who had died and were buried there? They have suffered the bitterness of darkness and loneliness and were the epitome of the resistance throughout the generations.”
Al Wadi’ revealed that there was one last point, and that is obtaining the manuscript of his first collection of poetry (written in 1967), which was confiscated from him on the day he was arrested. The ERC has adopted this cause and is presently looking into the matter.
But the story of tending to the wounds and giving them a chance to heal dates back as far as 1999, which is the same year in which the Moroccan King Mohammed VI assumed power. At the time, Morocco was weighed down with the mire of its history; the state had endured a brutal conflict between the regime, led by the late King Hassan II, and the leftist opposition, which bore arms at one point during the clashes. No agreement could be reached between the two parties except approximately a year and a half before the death of King Hassan II when he named Abderrahmane Youssoufi, one of his fiercest opponents, as Prime Minister . The king then announced that Morocco was on the threshold of a political reconciliation era.
However, that reconciliation era did not dawn with the new king’s ascension to the throne. Human rights activists continued to call for settling the accounts of the Moroccan youth who had fallen victim to the oppressive regime and had been detained in secret prisons. The majority of these youth were leftist extremists who had started to emerge in Moroccan universities since the beginning of the 70s. Steeped in communist ideology, these youth suddenly found themselves released from prison in the prime of their life without having realized their ideological dreams. They were left with no other recourse but to hold street demonstrations and set up the Moroccan Forum for Truth and Equity (FVJ). The FVJ constituted the framework under which the victims of these abuses and their families would gather to meet. The first leader to head this forum was Driss Benzekri, who later became the head of the Equity and Reconciliation Committee (ERC).
It only remained for the Moroccan state to take notice of these activists who had begun to organize visits to the secret prisons in some of the villages, such as Akdz and Taconet, places that remained obscure to the mainstream public in Morocco. Media reports and polls were careful to avoid a side that the state could take no pride in, particularly since the Moroccan monarch had issued strong signals relating his desire to modernize and democratize the country. In fact, it was the path his father had initiated after the storm had begun to abate.
Some know that the negotiations that took place between the state and Benzekri’s comrades had been difficult ones that aimed at convincing the latter to forgo their demand for accountability. As such, their acceptance for reconciliation would allow them to turn a new page on the abuses they had been subjected to, both individually and collectively as a community.
It came as a huge surprise, then, when Benzekri was declared the head of the ERC in 2003. The man was renowned for his stubbornness and his ability to say ‘no’ calmly and persistently. But he could not say the word on this occasion and in the face of leadership officials with whom he was negotiating. Benzekri was not affected by the accusations of ‘treachery’ that were hurled at him by some of his comrades, nor by the newspapers that launched one attack after the other at his expense. One ran the headline: ‘The regime feeds on the opposition’.
Dubbed ‘Morocco’s Mandela’ by some of his comrades, Benzekri realized that he had a duty that exceeded filling the streets with cries of protest. This is the reason behind his acceptance of the aforementioned post, and thus began the mission to uncover the truth without revealing the names of the torturers on the televised hearings that took place.
As such, the extremist leftists abandoned their rhetoric of protest and started working within the political system to achieve reconciliation between the state and its citizens. They felt that the best approach the former political prisoner had adopted was when he let go of the suffering of the past and gave them new hope for the future, whilst proving guarantees that the painful scenario would never be repeated again.
From the outset, the members of the ERC became aware that the best way to heal the wounds was to let them bleed in public, which is why the committee initiated a process called ‘Qidas al Haqiqa’ (Sanctifying the Truth) and which brought the victims of the past on to television screens in public discussions to recount the events that had taken place. It was a debate that sought to reveal to Moroccans their history from another dimension so that it may facilitate the process of reconciliation between individuals and the recent political history, which had formerly been shrouded in secrecy.
The ERC believed that it had, “been cautious to bring about recognition during these open public discussions through collective correspondence and debate within the society. This truth was not only represented in the facts regarding the physical abuses committed, but also in the analysis and interpretation of these violations within their historical, social and political backgrounds. They were viewed as a form of oppression that was practiced to enforce a means of managing public affairs with the intention of imposing a unilateral vision in the governance of public affairs, in addition to monitoring and controlling the elite so as to diminish and limit its role.
Dozens of Moroccans have been following up on newspaper reports, both local and international, on the progress of the ERC efforts, led by the fiercest oppositional figures of the past. The residents of remote villages would await the visits of Benzekri and his associates to tell them about the hardships they were enduring. Still, the people living in these detached villages remained largely unaware of the gist of the ongoing conflict between the leftist opposition and the government. The prevalent perception was that those who were imprisoned for long years in secret prisons were traitors. The guards of these prisons ensured the propagation of the perception that the detainees deserved to die for their despicable acts against the nation.
One of the most memorable moments was when Benzekri visited the notorious Maulay al Sharif prison where he had spent three years in which he was subjected torture for allegedly harboring subversive ideologies. His visit constituted a reconciliatory step towards the state that was responsible for his time in that prison.
Following a period of anticipation that lasted a few months, members of the ERC submitted their report to the Moroccan monarch, King Mohammed VI. At the beginning of 2006, the king gave an address in which he invited the victims to join him in what he called a ‘beautiful forgiveness’. Furthermore, he did not hesitate to receive embraces from the families of the victims, which was against the official protocol.
But the ERC’s efforts did not stop at making an inventory of the names and graves of the victims, or the call for individual and community reparation and for medical and psychological rehabilitation among other guarantees, the commission also started looking into cases that had been neglected. The abduction and assassination of left-wing leader Mehdi Ben Barka in Paris 1965 and the disappearance of Hussein al Manizi were among the cases examined.
In his final days, despite being bedridden, Benzekri was preoccupied with two critical matters: To provide medical health insurance for the victims, most of whom were old and in need of medical care. The other central preoccupation was to ensure that the reparations reached the victims and their families in the shortest amount of time possible. Tragically, Benzekri died on the day that Moroccan Prime Minister Driss Jettou and Minister of Health, Mohammed Cheikh Biadillah, were going to sign these two agreements.
Later, at the signing ceremony, the prime minister took the opportunity to affirm that, “the signing of these agreements is a historic moment that will pave way to the stages that will follow in which the ERC will implement its recommendations at the orders of the Moroccan monarch.”
Jettou added that, “Coordinating with the Consultative Council for Human Rights, the government has strived to settle the compensation cases and to ensure the reimbursement of the financial reparations due to the victims.”
He concluded by saying that, “Reconciling with the past represents an important station for the process of building foundations of a fair and equitable state that entrenches and respects the human rights of citizens.”
*Islamic concept for rectifying inflicted damage through reparations