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Morocco's justice system, plagued by corruption, sees hope of reform in Islamist victory
RABAT, Morocco (AP) ' The chant thundered through the headquarters of Morocco's Islamist party as it celebrated election victory.
"The people want reform of the justice system!" the crowd roared.
Sitting on the podium with party leaders was Jaafar Hassoun, a former judge who says he was disbarred and hounded after he refused to give the regime the verdicts it wanted.
Justice is one of the most sensitive issues in this tourist-friendly North African country of 32 million, where there is widespread distrust of a court system that most Moroccans believe serves the highest bidder. "Justice" can be bought in civil trials for just $5,000. In sensitive trials against terror suspects or feisty journalists, a call from a powerful official is enough to seal a guilty verdict.
The Islamist Justice and Development Party won the right to head Morocco's next government in the Nov. 25 elections and one of its main campaign promises is battling corruption and creating a truly independent judiciary.
Though the party describes itself as having an Islamic orientation, PJD has always been very moderate on the role of religion in society and has no plans to replace Morocco's civil law codes with strict religious law courts.
Morocco's courts have historically been weak and under the control of the king and his Justice Ministry, which determines judges' salaries and appointments so that they will often rule as instructed for the sake of their careers.
Beyond human rights, observers say Morocco needs a justice system that foreign investors can trust so this Western-friendly nation can grow economically.
"The judicial system's lack of independence and the corresponding lack of public confidence are impediments to the country's development and reform efforts," noted a U.S. embassy cable in 2009, shortly after the king made a speech promising new judicial reforms.
Even as the king was talking about the need for more judiciary independence, Hassoun, at the time a judge on the Supreme Council of Magistrates, was losing his job.
He told The Associated Press that his troubles began in 2003, when he initiated a petition signed by 1,700 judges denouncing the arrest and humiliating treatment of a group of judges during an anti-drug campaign in the north in 2003, leading to a four-month suspension for Hassoun.
Then in 2009, while working as a judge in the city of Marrakech, he had to rule on the decision by another court to cancel a pro-government candidate's win in local elections because of blatant fraud. He said authorities pressured him to overturn the decision, but he upheld it, earning further official ire.
The next year he was blamed for a newspaper's leak of the highly confidential next round of judicial appointments. He denied leaking the information and the newspaper denied he was involved. But he was disbarred in a trial in which he said no evidence was presented.
When he then tried to start a law practice, the king's prosecutor blocked him from joining the local bar association. His attempt to run in elections last month was also stymied when the mayor of his city rejected his candidacy.
"These are personal vendettas and the worst thing is that they are being pursued with state resources," said Hassoun, who is now working with the PJD and may yet get a chance to reform the system that once went after him.
Morocco's constitution was amended on July 1 to strengthen the judiciary, making it finally a branch of its own on par with the legislative and executive and no longer under the direct authority of the Justice Ministry. But its High Council of Judicial Power will still be chaired by the king.
Past attempts to bolster the judiciary produced few results. And the European Union dramatically scaled back aid programs for Moroccan justice reform last year.
"We do not see the real objectives, which makes it difficult for the European Union to identify and allocate funds to support a reform," wrote the EU ambassador to Morocco, Emeko Landaburu, in an article that appeared in June.
Even Foreign Minister Taieb Fassi-Fihri acknowledged "phone call justice" exists, in a speech before the Brookings Institute in March.
Judicial independence "is not the reality today, because (there are) some calls from time to time, from the Justice Department to some judge. But now we want to assure this total independence," he said.
To make matters worse, Morocco's 3,000 judges are inundated by cases they say they barely have time to handle. In 2007 there were 2.57 million new cases filed and 3.25 million ongoing, according to a 2010 USAID report on the rule of law in Morocco.
Judges are often poorly trained and badly paid. Worse, they see it as their job to help to police, said Rachid Filali Meknassi, the Moroccan representative for global anti-corruption group Transparency International.
"In the face of the police, the judges are scared, in the face of politics, the judges are scared, but when they have power, they sell it," he said.
Trials for political activists or journalists who criticize the regime move swiftly with no defense motions granted ' and almost always end with convictions.
"It is a problem that really becomes obvious when there are political trials, such as when there are trials against independent journalists and also those involving terrorism. They are directed," said Abdelaziz Nouaydi who runs the Adala (justice) Association dedicated to an independent judiciary. As a lawyer he has defended everyone from journalists to former Guantanamo detainees.
Terrorism trials follow a predictable script, such as the recent case of nine suspects in the April bombing of a cafe popular with tourists in Marrakech that killed 17 people, mostly foreigners.
Defense lawyers asked to depose witnesses, call their own experts and sought several other motions ' all denied by the judge. The trial, in which all were found guilty, consisted of little more than restating the police's case, which relied on confessions the defendants maintained were coerced.
"The justice system in Morocco is a means to legitimize the repression of the political opposition," concluded a report authored by Adala for the EU.
For the anti-corruption platform of Morocco's newly elected Islamist party to succeed, it will need a coherent strategy to create a strong, independent judiciary.
At the same time, the party is confronted by a system of corruption that reaches the highest levels and has long profited from a weak judiciary.
But talk from the king about court reform is a good sign, some experts say.
"Rhetoric should not be underestimated," said Norman Greene, an attorney working on global rule of law issues. "Rhetoric often comes before action."