Morocco trying to show its liberal side

Analysts say King Mohamed VI. is trying to outpace protesters seeking to reduce his power and to burnish Morocco's image ahead of a United Nations vote this week.

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For 18 months they sat in a Moroccan prison accused of colluding with enemies of the state. Then, unexpectedly, Ali Salem Tamek, Brahim Dahane and Ahmed Naciri walked free.

The three men, who advocate independence for the disputed territory of Western Sahara, were among scores of political prisoners freed earlier this month.

The releases follow pledges of democratic reform last month by King Mohamed VI. However, analysts say that he is trying to outpace protesters seeking to reduce his power and to burnish Morocco's image ahead of a United Nations vote this week on whether to extend its peacekeeping presence in Western Sahara, which is in its 21st year.

"Morocco wants to show that it is at the forefront of liberalism in the region," said Michael Willis, professor of Moroccan and Mediterranean Studies at Oxford University.

The wave of Arab-world protests that began in December in Tunisia reached Morocco in February, when thousands marched to condemn corruption and demand a smaller role for the country's monarchy.

While many Arab governments have responded to peaceful protests with tear gas and live ammunition, Moroccan authorities have with few exceptions allowed them to go ahead.

Last month King Mohamed promised that a new constitution strengthening political parties and establishing an independent judiciary would be drafted by June and put to a referendum.

Critics of the government were not not assuaged. Thousands swarmed the streets again for protests focused on SNI/ONA, a royally owned holding company that for many embodies the clique of businessmen and palace advisers who protesters say wield power behind the scenes.

The protests have left Morocco's leaders scrambling to show that they are serious about reform, said Mohamed Darif, a politics professor at Morocco's Mohammedia University.

Last month King Mohamed established the National Human Rights Council (CNDH), replacing an earlier state human rights body that had a purely advisory role.

Based on recommendations from the council, 96 prisoners were freed outright by royal pardon this month, while 94 others had their sentences shortened.

"We've begun with cases we knew well," said Mohamed Sabbar, the council's secretary general. When it came to high-profile prisoners, "it was clear that these people were in jail for political reasons," he said.

Those pardoned included four moderate Islamist politicians, one leftist politician and a journalist for Al Manar, the Lebanese satellite television network run by Hizbollah. They were arrested on terrorism charges in 2008 and convicted in 2009 based on confessions they say were falsified or extracted under torture.

Also pardoned was human rights activist Chekib el Khayari, a whistleblower on alleged police complicity in drugs trafficking who was jailed in 2009 for "insulting state institutions" and minor banking and currency infractions.

Meanwhile, Morocco also hopes to shore up international support for its policies in Western Sahara, which it claims as its territory. It has occupied the area since invading it in 1975 on the heels of departing Spanish colonisers.

The Polisario Front, Western Sahara's Algerian-backed liberation movement, initially fought a 16-year war for the territory. It wants a referendum on independence in which both native Saharawis and Moroccan newcomers would vote, while Morocco wants only limited self-rule under Moroccan sovereignty for the region. UN-led talks begun in 2007 have so far failed to break the impasse.

When the UN Security Council convenes Wednesday to vote on renewing the mandate of UN peacekeepers in the territory, council members are expected to signal their positions on the dispute.

"There's a feeling of certainty on the part of Morocco that the United States will support the autonomy plan in return for Morocco making political reforms," said Mr Darif.

In addition, Morocco wants to counter efforts by the Polisario to have UN peacekeepers in Western Sahara also serve as human-rights monitors. Morocco, which insists there is no noteworthy human-rights problem in the area, says it will only accept periodic visits by UN human-rights workers.

Morocco's stance is "connected to the idea of saying that none of this is necessary, that Morocco is behaving well," said Anna Theofilopoulou, a former UN official who covered Western Sahara from 1994 to 2006. "The release of Saharawi prisoners is part of the same idea."

Western Saharan pro-independence campaigners say that Moroccan police have illegally detained and tortured their supporters and violently broken up demonstrations - claims that Morocco denies.

Mr Tamek, Mr Dahane and Mr Naciri were arrested in October 2009 as they returned from visiting refugee camps in Algeria run by the Polisario, where they met openly with Polisario officials. They say the trip was for purely humanitarian purposes.

However, the men were initially charged with treason by a military court before being put on trial last year in a civilian court for the lesser charge of harming internal security. Their release this month by a court in Casablanca is provisional pending a verdict.

Since last week authorities have also provisionally released at least 26 Saharawis arrested in November during and after clashes between police and protesters in Laayoune, Western Sahara's main city, according to statements from the Saharawi Association for Victims of Human Rights Violations.

The raft of pardons and other releases is welcome but does not necessarily indicate genuine reform, said Eric Goldstein, deputy director for the Middle East and North Africa for Human Rights Watch, who has closely followed the cases of some of those released.

"A better indicator of reform would be an acknowledgement by Moroccan authorities that these individuals were unjustly imprisoned for political motives," he said.