Morocco outlines ambitious judicial reform plan

RABAT, Morocco (AP) — After more than a year of dialogue, Morocco’s Islamist-led government has moved forward on a major campaign promise and unveiled a reform plan for the country’s much-criticized judicial system.

The system has been a major sore point for Moroccans because of a widespread perception that courts serve the rich and powerful. Critics allege that verdicts in civil trials can be purchased for a few thousand dollars, while a phone call from a high-ranking official can ensure a guilty ruling in political cases.

The justice system was listed as one of the most corrupt sectors in the country by the 2013 World Corruption Index.

The Islamist Justice and Development Party won the right to head Morocco’s next government in the 2011 elections, and one of its main campaign promises was battling corruption and creating a truly independent judiciary.

Justice Minister Mustapha Ramid unveiled the new plan late Thursday describing it as a product of an extensive dialogue that has the backing of King Mohammed VI, who first pushed for judicial reform in a 2009 speech.

“This is a historic moment we are living as we meet to reform the judicial system,” Ramid said at the conference’s opening, which included high government officials and diplomats. “Our dialogue was distinguished by the fact that we all wanted a profound reform requiring the mobilization of all forces in society.”

The ambitious plan addresses many of the criticisms of Morocco’s justice system, including higher standards and more training for judges, prosecutors and lawyers, as well as greater transparency in appointments and penalties on members of the judiciary.

Judicial reform has long been discussed, but never implemented, and in 2010 the European Union scaled back its funding for the reforms after complaining that nothing was happening.

The charter, which has to be voted on by parliament, also talks about setting up a mechanism to oversee judges’ expenditures and lifestyles to ensure they are in line with their income.

The plan follows up on measures in the new 2011 constitution, which was amended in response to pro-democracy Arab Spring demonstrations, to get the judiciary out from under the shadow of the Ministry of Justice and make it more independent. In the past, executive control over judicial appointments and salaries ensured pliant judges.

The prosecutor’s office will now be under the Court of Cassation, the country’s highest court, instead of the Ministry of Justice, a move that has been welcomed by the Judges’ Club, an association that has pushed for reform.

However, Abdelilah Benabdessalam, the vice president of the Moroccan of Association of Human Rights, noted that with the king appointing the head of the court as well as the Royal Prosecutor himself, the institution couldn’t be considered completely independent, at least not from royal influence.

“We can’t really speak about a real independence of the judiciary when the king appoints the principle official of the Court of Cassation at the Supreme Council of the Judiciary,” he said.

One key aspect of the reform — long demanded by human rights activists — is a revision of the penal code “to bring it into harmony with the new constitution and principles of international conventions” that Morocco has signed.

The presentation gave no specifics, but there has been repeated criticism of the criminalization of abortion, sex outside marriage and alcohol consumption for Muslims, as well as allowing rapists to marry their underage victims to escape prosecution.

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