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Post  Jennie on Wed Jun 25, 2008 12:13 pm

State Main Opponent of Abolition in Morocco----Interview with campaigner Abdelilah Benebdesslam

Ambiguous statements and contradictory policies make it impossible to predict when Morocco will abolish the death penalty. But the "great confusion" on the issue is not deterring human rights activists pressing forward with their public campaigning -- especially among the youth.

Adelilah Benebdesslam, coordinator of the Moroccan Coalition Against the Death Penalty, a coalition of seven NGOs founded in 2003, and veteran human rights activist, says there should be no despair. Times of wars and terrorism are proving an impetus to reaching the goal of a worldwide death penalty ban.

In an interview with IPS correspondent Abderrahim El Ouali, Benebdesslam calls for an end to officials compounding the confusion in Morocco by saying they support death penalty abolition and then repeating the state's anti-abolitionist stance.

IPS: What kind of campaigns have you been leading since your coalition was founded?

Abdelilah Benebdesslam (AB): We've held many conferences, and meetings with university students to increase awareness on abolition. We have also organised petitions signed by civil and political activists and ordinary citizens. Each year we hold sit-ins to commemorate the World Day Against the Death Penalty.

We have visited prisoners on death row in the central jail of Kenitra and published a report on the tragic conditions in which they live.

When we launched the national campaign "Together against the Death Penalty" in April 2005, we organised meetings with the media and provided journalists with studies and background material.

Besides this, we have addressed a memorandum on the death penalty to the government and held meetings with political parties and parliamentarian groups.

IPS: Can you judge how effective this has been in winning over people in support of abolition?

AB: Our humble efforts from 2003 to 2005 did yield positive results. The 1st of these was the hosting of the international conference of the World Coalition Against the Death Penalty in Casablanca in 2006.

Our anti-death penalty coalition is the most active and organised of any in North Africa and the Middle East. Of course, our engagement is due to our conviction that the death penalty is inhumane and violates the sacred right to life. It's also due to our belief that Morocco should be part of the worldwide movement for abolition.

At the beginning, as a result of our campaigning, the state reacted positively and the former minister of justice said he was against the death penalty.

IPS: But didn't he later backtrack and say this was his personal point of view?

AB: Yes, you are right. But it is not acceptable for a minister to say, "This is my personal view and here is the official one". Views may be personal only when one is an ordinary citizen without public responsibilities. The minister reversed his position soon after the suicide bombings in Casablanca on May 16, 2003, saying the execution of the perpetrators was possible. Then, later he repeated that Morocco was studying the possibility of abolishing the death penalty.

IPS: Would you describe this as an official wavering on abolition?

AB: There is a certain contradiction in the Moroccan state stance. Morocco has observed a de facto moratorium on executions since 1993. The former minister of justice did indeed make positive declarations about abolition, and the former president of the Human Rights Consultative Council, Driss Benzekri, did say Morocco was going to abolish the death penalty by the end of April 2006. Yet, Moroccan courts still go on sentencing to death. Moreover, Morocco though observing a moratorium, abstained in the vote in the General Assembly on a worldwide moratorium last December. This is all completely paradoxical and ambiguous; it leads to great confusion.

IPS: You said the former minister of justice switched positions after the suicide bombings in Casablanca in 2003. Do you think terrorist attacks are making your task more difficult?

AB: The position of human rights defenders in general -- and defenders of the right to life especially -- should not be influenced by wars and conflicts. Human rights cannot be respected in one period and violated in another. And, in fact, we are witnessing the contrary to this: even with the increase in terrorism and wars, the number of abolitionist countries is ever-increasing.

Our activities, too, are continuously expanding. They are developing as the abolitionist movement all around the world is getting stronger, due to the increasing awareness that the death penalty is irreversible and inhumane.

IPS: You are pursuing dialogue with all concerned institutions. Does this also include King Mohammed VI?

AB: We are addressing the Moroccan state of which the King is the highest representative. One member of our coalition -- The Moroccan Prisons Watch -- has already addressed a letter to the King.

We consider that abolition concerns all sections of society. We are concerned that unless Morocco joins the worldwide abolitionist movement with the greatest urgency, it might one day resume executions.

IPS: In an interview you gave last June, you expressed doubts whether Morocco would abolish the death penalty. How can you campaign for an objective that you think is unobtainable?

AB: At the time there was an active debate on abolition and people were excessively optimistic. But I knew that the optimistic declarations made by Driss Benzekri in advance of the World Conference against the Death Penalty in Paris in February 2007 would soon run into the Moroccan reality. We should not be falsely optimistic as we know that in Morocco there's a great distance between words and practice.

Certainly, our task as defenders of human rights is to reduce this distance, but we do face resistance from forces that are against human rights.

IPS: Would you name these "forces", please?

AB: The state of course. Even if the state says it wants to abolish the death penalty, it carries on using it. I remember that the general secretary of the ministry of justice said in a conference to launch the international campaign against the death penalty, that they were "preparing the land for abolition". But they think that abolition might provoke some reactions. Do they mean from Islamists? But even some Islamists have shown flexibility regarding this issue.

The state is actually the main opponent of abolition. Of course, when we say "the main" we mean that there are other opponents on the sidelines. But we do know that when the state really wants to take a decision, it takes it. The parliamentarian group of the Front of Democratic Forces (FFD) has already introduced a bill to abolish the death penalty but it has been put into limbo because there is no real political will to abolish capital punishment.

IPS: But do you feel more optimistic now than in 2007 that Morocco will abolish the death penalty?

AB: We human rights defenders live by hope and optimism. We are continuing our mission and we are planning a new campaign. Our main target groups will be youngsters in schools and universities. These are the representatives of the future and are concerned with all reforms in society. We really do hope that Morocco will join the ranks of the abolitionist nations.

(source: IPS News)

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