Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Morocco - First Arab Country Preparing to Abolish Death Penalty

At the Third World Congress against the Death Penalty in Paris last February, the head of the Morocco's state-appointed Consultative Committee on Human Rights, Ben Zekri, confirmed there was a general consensus among members of parliament to end capital punishment. The Moroccan press has speculated that a parliamentary vote will be taken on the issue in the current parliamentary session which ends in June. A bill to abolish the death penalty had already been drawn up and put before the government. The king had also set up a special legal commission which was working on the task of removing capital punishment from the country's legal code.

Since 1993 Morocco has operated a moratorium on the death penalty -- one of some 20 African countries which have not carried out executions for more than 10 years.

Opponents of the death penalty world-wide, hope that Morocco's removal of the death penalty from its statute books will set an example to North African and Middle Eastern states. None of the 22 states in the region have yet abolished the death penalty. Saudi Arabia and Iran execute more than a hundred every year.

Morocco's steady progress along the road to abolition of the death penalty was given a major boost with the final report of the Equity and Reconciliation Committee in 2005. This recommended the abolition of the death penalty as a measure for strengthening the judicial and political reforms carried out since king Mohammed VI's accession to the throne in 1999.

The committee, headed by Driss Benzekri, a close advisor to the king, investigated grave violations of human rights committed between the granting of independence and 1999. It organised public hearings which were broadcast on national television, something unheard of in the Arab world.

Moroccan television has also played a major role in the public debate on the death penalty. Last October the national coalition against the death penalty organised a debate on capital punishment at the headquarters of the lawyer's club in the Moroccan capital, Rabat. This was televised nationally.

Later a documentary on the death penalty was also broadcast on television. Nothing like this had ever been produced and shown in an Arab country, one delegate to the recent Paris World Congress against the Death Penalty said. The documentary appears to have convinced some people to switch from supporting the death penalty to becoming abolitionists.

Not all Morocco's predominantly Muslim population have been won over by the arguments of the abolitionists. Many still find justification for capital punishment in the Koran and sacred texts. Some members of Morocco's legal profession would also not like any change in the law.

"The abolitionists have the wrong approach to the right to life," Mohamed Chemssy, a lawyer, told IPS. "This right cannot be used to defend someone who has deprived another of precisely this right. Those who support abolition cannot only consider the criminal. They must also consider the families of the victims." He added: "The death penalty cannot be tied to democracy, dictatorship, Islam or to any other religion. It is tied to justice. We do not need to abolish the death penalty. We need to guarantee fair triails for all and an independent judiciary that would give fair sentences no matter what the punishment," he said.

But Ahmed Kouza, a doctor and Amnesty International activist, takes an opposite view:
"Abolition would improve the image of this country and help reinforce respect for human rights where the right to life comes first of all," he told IPS. "Death penalty sentences and executions have never stopped crime anywhere." Judicial mistakes could never be ruled out. The emphasis should be on reforming criminals and returning them to society. "As Muslims, we believe that only God gives life and death," he added.

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