To Be or Not to Be

A Dispute about the Death Penalty Exposes Morocco’s Societal Divisions
© Shutterstock - Room 76 - Hangman's loop over the concrete wall

The kidnapping, rape and murder of an 11-year-old boy in Tangier has ignited calls for the execution of the perpetrator. The child called Adnane was abducted from close to his home in broad daylight and his body later buried in a park. The barbarous crime has stirred a national debate about capital punishment, which ironically coincided with the international day against the death penalty on October 10.

Many people took to social media in order to express their indignation and to ask for the execution of the 24-year-old culprit. Some went so far as to suggest that the simple death penalty was not enough, but that the punishment should be conducted publicly, as it is common in countries like Iran or Saudi-Arabia. A top religious leader pleaded that human rights couldn’t be applied to criminals and an online petition claiming the application of the death penalty quickly gained traction, collecting several hundred thousand signatures.

A Punishment, which does not Exist Anymore

The execution of the death penalty in Morocco has practically been suspended since 1993. Even if there are no official declarations on the matter, capital punishment has not occurred ever since. However, the punishment still exists in Moroccan penal law and is pronounced on average 2-3 times per year. Judges can condemn defendants to death for a limited number of crimes, including terrorism, murder and treason. In such cases, as Moroccan penal advocate Fadoua Aissam explains, ‘judges tend to pick the maximum penalty in order to appease an enraged public’. They would be free to choose alternative penalties, but they generally do not.

This leads to a bizarre situation. There are currently about 75 people in the death row, including some who have already spent decades waiting for a penalty, which may eventually never be executed. As Fadoua Aissam argues, this means actually a double punishment: a lifelong prison sentence combined with the daily fear of death.

Different Conceptions of Human Rights

Advocates like Aissam as well as human rights organisations have been lobbying for the abolishment of the death penalty in Moroccan law for years. They point out that the basic idea of the law is not to take revenge but to restore order and to give the culprit a chance to rehabilitate. The death penalty contradicts these fundamental ideas, even more so because it is not reversible in the case of a wrong verdict. As a first step, the capital punishment’s opponents want their country to sign the United Nations Moratorium on the death penalty, which would make Morocco only the second Arab country to do so after Algeria.

This, however, points to the problem. The death penalty is a common feature in Arab penal codes, not least because the idea of revenge is insinuated in the Qur’an (just as in the bible), with passages like the famous ‘a life for a life, an eye for an eye’. Some Moroccan Conservatives and Islamists want this text to be interpreted literally, which leads them to assert that the concept of human rights does not apply to the culprit of the murder in Tangier.

The Moroccan government has condemned the crime, but avoided to comment on any particular judgement that it wants to see delivered. This reflects the divisions in the governing coalition on this particular question. Whereas the moderate Islamists (PJD) are in favour of capital punishment for severe crimes, the left wing parties (PPS and USFP) are fundamentally opposed to it.

The Status Quo Forever?

This division makes any change to the status quo unlikely in the unforeseeable future. It is very unlikely that Morocco will perform its first execution since 1993 any time soon. This would potentially do a lot of harm to the country’ reputation in the West, particularly in Europe, with which Morocco is currently busy to foster closer economic and societal ties. On the other hand, it is also unlikely that Morocco will abolish capital punishment in its legal texts against the backdrop of the current public outrage. The prisoners in the death row will continue to live in uncertainty.

The current debate about the death penalty shows, however, that societal peace in Morocco is fragile. One camp claiming their human and citizen’s rights, believe in the principles of the rule of law and look to the West (or in the case of Morocco: North) for role models. These are the people, who took to the streets during the Arab spring in 2011 and who were reassured by the subsequent constitutional reforms. Another camp, however, wishes for an authoritarian state based on religious law and looks to the East (that is the Gulf States) for orientation. In order to maintain societal peace, the King and the government will have to steer a careful course, which appeases both sides. Their ability to do so will soon be put to test again, when campaigning for the parliamentary elections 2021 starts.

About the Author

Sebastian Vagt
Sebastian Vagt is the Project Director of Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom in Morocco and Algeria. Sebastian holds a diploma in State and Social Sciences from Munich and Stellenbosch, South Africa. In his previous role at the Foundation, he served as a Defence Analyst in our Brussels office.