LRB: Monjib’s great crime has been to tell the truth about human rights in Morocco
Maâti Monjib, a distinguished Moroccan historian and human rights activist, has been on hunger strike since 4 March in al-Arjat prison near Rabat. Monjib was seized last December by plainclothes security officers in a restaurant in Rabat, brought before a prosecutor and then an investigating judge, who ordered his detention pending trial. On 27 January he received a one-year prison sentence for ‘fraud’ and ‘treason’ (‘atteinte à la sécurité de l’Etat’). But Monjib, who teaches at Mohammed V-Rabat university, has done nothing more than exercise his constitutionally guaranteed rights to free speech and academic freedom in a country where rights advocacy is once again a dangerous activity, as it was in the worst period of King Hassan II’s reign, known as the ‘years of lead’.
Monjib has already gone into exile once, from 1992 to 2000, to avoid persecution, yet even at the height of Hassan’s repression, he was spared imprisonment. But Mohammed VI, who succeeded his father in 1999, now seems committed to his own version of the years of lead. Monjib became the object of a long-running court case in 2015. On more than twenty occasions, he and his lawyers would show up in court only to be told by the judge that proceedings would not take place. Meanwhile he was subjected to intense surveillance and invasive monitoring of his life, finances, contacts and correspondence, in the hope that he would opt for exile again, in Europe or the US. His refusal to do so accounts for his arrest. His one-year sentence was handed down with alacrity by the very court that shuffled its feet for years over the same charges, brought in 2015. This time, as the sentence was pronounced, neither Monjib nor his lawyers were present.
Monjib’s great crime has been to tell the truth about human rights in Morocco. Dictatorships survive by blurring the boundaries between what is true and what is fabricated, and the Moroccan regime has a long tradition of gaslighting its opponents and debunking truth. Hassan II always denied that political repression existed in Morocco; in an interview with Anne Sinclair in 1993 he said that the secret prison at Kelaat M’Gouna never existed. Worse, the Moroccan government and its representatives denied the existence of the notorious extermination camp of Tazmamart, where more than fifty soldiers and air force personnel implicated, however vaguely, in two failed coup attempts, were held between 1973 and 1991. When they re-emerged during general amnesties or after international pressure, Moroccan officials took refuge in silence.
Monjib is one of a handful Moroccan historians to specialise in post-1956 history, a dangerous area of expertise that most academics shun because, inevitably, it involves the royal family’s sabotage of Morocco’s democratic prospects. Where his colleagues have focused on precolonial times, Monjib has written a history of the struggle between the monarchy and the nationalist parties. He is the first scholar to examine the crown’s efforts to undermine Morocco’s fledgling post-independence democracy. He has also published books and articles about Mahdi Ben Barka, the Third-Worldist opposition leader kidnapped and assassinated in Paris in 1965, and – stepping beyond his specialism – Abdelkrim al-Khattabi, the Riffian resistance leader who waged an impressive liberation war against the Spanish until 1927. Both Abdelkrim and Ben Barka were revolutionary figures occluded, even today, by the selective amnesia of the monarchy.
Monjib’s activism in the fields of human rights and freedom of expression is another of his vices in the eyes of the Moroccan establishment. The Ibn Rochd Centre for Research and Communication, which he set up, was closed in 2014. It trained investigative journalists and hosted encounters between Islamists and secularist leftists, encouraging dialogue between different political groups.
In 2004 Mohammed VI approved an Equity and Reconciliation Commission (ERC), a variant of the truth commissions set up in dozens of countries after the Cold War: the Moroccan version was tasked to achieve a modus vivendi between the state and the thousands of victims and survivors of the years of lead, including cash compensation, and to spruce up the monarchy’s image. Yet the stated aim of all such transitional justice processes – guaranteeing that human rights violations will not be repeated – has failed. Monjib’s case – not the only one – shows that the new constitution, adopted in 2011, has been an empty shell; so does the increasing use of force to quell demonstrations. The monarchy and its security apparatus have withdrawn most of the rights Moroccans enjoyed between Hassan II’s death in 1999 and the Arab Spring in 2011. Monjib’s case is typical of the royal war on truth and democratic right