January 5, 2012 / 6:59 PM / 8 years ago

INTERVIEW-Morocco govt to seek royal pardon for jailed activists

* New minister to hold broad debate on reform of judiciary

* Minister promises new press law to end journalists’ jailing

* Rights groups want him to help jailed reformist rapper El-Haqed

By Souhail Karam

RABAT, Jan 5 (Reuters) - Morocco’s new justice minister said on Thursday he would seek royal pardons for critics of the establishment who rights activists say have been unfairly jailed, signalling a break with the past by the new Islamist-led government.

Mustafa Ramid, minister of justice and public freedoms, also said in an interview he planned to organise a national debate involving judges, the bar and civil society groups to help draft proposals for the reform of the judiciary.

Ramid is from Justice and Development (PJD), the moderate Islamist party that won an election in November in the latest sign of a resurgence of faith-based movements resulting from the Arab Spring uprisings. In October Tunisia also handed power to a previously banned party of moderate Islamists.

Local and international right groups say hundreds of Moroccan Islamists were jailed after politically motivated trials, often without solid evidence, after suicide attacks in Casablanca that killed 45 people in 2003.

Activists also cite the case of Rachid Nini, editor of Almassae newspaper, who was sentenced in June to one year in jail for criticising the security services’ counter-terrorism campaign and what he said were unfair trials of Islamists.

“We have our vision (of how to deal with those cases) but we also have institutional constraints. The government cannot intervene in the judiciary. No one can call on it to do that. It is an independent institution,” Ramid told Reuters.

“There is a unique way ... which is the royal pardon. So we will work and deploy efforts, ... to try to solve this problem. Ultimately, it is not up to us to decide but it is the king who should take a decision. We will try for such a decision to be based on information and proposals that we will be putting forward (to the king),” he added.

The judiciary should gain independence, especially from the security apparatus, under charter reforms crafted last year by the Arab world’s longest-serving monarchy to pre-empt a popular revolt like those that have ended the rule of four Arab leaders.

“What is required today is that we complete in the best possible way and over the next five years the work done by our predecessors (former justice ministers) and to achieve that we will ... organise a national debate ... That is our proposal,” Ramid said.

As well as being accused of widespread corruption, Morocco’s justice system has a reputation for taking its cue from the authorities, especially when it comes to verdicts in cases of graft or Islamic militancy.

“We should seek to grant judges all the means ... to ensure the highest level of integrity,” Ramid said.

Other cases which groups like the independent Moroccan Human Rights Association would like Ramid to address soon include that of rapper Mouad Belrhouat, better known as El-Haqed, ‘The Sullen One’.

El-Haqed has become the singing voice of a Moroccan protest movement that was inspired by Arab uprisings to demand a British or Spanish-style constitutional monarchy, an independent judiciary and improved curbs on corruption.

The 24-year-old rapper was jailed in September after a brawl which his supporters allege was a conspiracy to silence one of the boldest critics of the Moroccan monarchy. His trial has repeatedly been adjourned.

In his songs, he accused the state of promoting the use of drugs among youths and said the king’s sweeping prerogatives left him little time “to count the money he has in Switzerland”, remarks that shocked many Moroccans who revere the king.

Ramid did not comment on the rapper’s case but promised a new press law that will not subject journalists to jail terms for their reporting - a promise also made by previous governments.

“The issue has to be addressed from the root which in this case is the press law. We will be working with our colleague the communication minister to draft a new (press) law to end imprisonments and I hope we will succeed in this,” Ramid said, though he declined to give a timeframe.

“If the previous government has not been able in five years (to achieve that) then we can’t fix a timeframe: The issue is complex. It’s not as simple as some may imagine”. (Reporting By Souhail Karam; Editing by Tim Pearce)

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