Thursday, 21 April 2011

Morocco frees 92 political prisoners

Morocco freed 92 political prisoners on Thursday, including a prominent anti-corruption activist and a controversial preacher, under a pardon issued by the king following street protests demanding democratic reform.

The pardon also commuted to limited prison terms death penalties for five others and life imprisonments for 37 others, officials from the National Council for Human Rights said.

Prison terms for 53 others were also reduced.

The majority of those freed or whose sentences were reduced were members of the Islamist Salafist Jihad group.

Mohamed Sebbar, appointed secretary general of the Council by King Mohammed in March, said the pardon was a prelude to a thorough review of the cases of political prisoners in Morocco.

Those freed included preacher Mohammed Fizazi, who was sentenced in 2003 to 30 years in jail after he was convicted of inspiring 12 suicide bombers to kill 33 people in Casablanca earlier that year, in Morocco`s deadliest bomb attack.

Local human right groups have said hundreds, including Salafist Jihad sympathisers, were jailed after the attack in politically motivated trials, often without solid evidence.

Last month, King Mohammed announced constitutional reform to give up some of his sweeping powers and make the judiciary independent in Morocco, a staunch ally of the West.

It came after a youth-led movement called Feb 20 spearheaded some of the biggest anti-establishment protests in decades in the North African country, with demands that included the release of political prisoners.

“This pardon indicates that the king has once again picked up the streets` message,” political analyst Ahmed el-Bouz said.

Five people who were jailed in 2009 after a court convicted them of plotting terrorist attacks in the country and who were among those freed were present at Thursday`s news conference, including prominent figures of two moderate Islamist parties. “I would like to thank the youth of Feb 20 Movement,” Mustapha Mouatassim, one of them, said.

Mostly-veiled female relatives broke into tears and chanted “God is Greatest” when the group was brought to the Council venue in black cars. One woman, Houria Amer, wept in disappointment when she realised that her husband Luqman Mokhtar, who was also jailed in 2009, was not among them.

“They have all been jailed unfairly under the same sham case. How can they free some and leave others in prison?” she said.

Corruption whistleblower and human right activist Chakib El-Khiari, jailed for three years in 2009 after accusing high-ranking officials of involvement in drug trafficking, was among those pardoned and freed. Amnesty International has said Khiari was a prisoner of conscience, detained solely for his anti-corruption statements and human rights activities


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