New Hopes From Rabat

03/05/2013 02:50 pm ET | Updated May 05, 2013

Morocco's official news agency this week reported that King Muhammad VI has acceded to a request that civilians no longer be tried in military court. The National Human Rights Council, a government-backed group with a mandate to oversee and critique government policies, had proposed the change in one of its reports on legislative reform following the adoption of a new Moroccan constitution in 2011. According to the news release, the Council's proposal would also limit military courts' jurisdiction over soldiers to matters of military discipline, state security, and terrorism.

The announcement comes two weeks after an army tribunal in Rabat convicted 25 ethnic Saharans of charges arising from the killing of eleven members of the security forces in November 2010. Demonstrators near the Saharan city of Laâyoune had erected a protest camp, calling for an independent state on a large swath of desert which Moroccans regard as the southern half of their country but which an Algerian-backed separatist group, the POLISARIO, claims as its own. The deaths transpired amid violent clashes between demonstrators and the government in which two Saharans were also killed. Amnesty International decried the military trial and called for a civilian retrial, as well as an independent investigation into allegations of torture.

It is unclear whether the king's new announcement will affect the latter trial. But the implementation of the Council's proposal would be meaningful in any case -- not only in the Sahara, but also for the more populous areas in Morocco, where military courts have sometimes held sway over nonpolitical criminal proceedings. As I learned while embedded for four months with the Moroccan police in 2007-2008, such trials often impose unwarranted secrecy on the lives of the victims of ordinary crimes and their families. Bringing an end to this phenomenon would provide a breath of fresh air to civilians, as well as distinguish Morocco from other Arab countries in which military authority over civilian affairs remains a fact of life.

It was in December of 2008 that the police with whom I spent the most time, a plainclothes investigative squad in a working-class neighborhood of Casablanca, cracked a homicide that turned out to have been perpetrated by a soldier. He was a member of a new unit called the "Rapid Intervention Forces," which had been assigned to assist the regular police of Casablanca in the years following a triple suicide bombing in the country in 2003. There had been overwhelming popular demand for reinforced security -- and at first, a new police detail called the "Urban Security Groups" was established in response. But following widespread charges of abuse of power, the government disbanded the groups. In a country with limited resources like Morocco, there was no ready alternative but to borrow the additional "boots on the ground" from the army in their stead.

Unfortunately, when soldiers trained for lethal combat become involved in the subtleties of urban policing, there are also new risks -- and the December murder victim I came to learn about was apparently one of the casualties.

To this day, it isn't fully known what transpired on the night when a poor man, subbing for the night watchman in a warehouse on the outskirts of town, came to blows with a soldier who had found his way inside. Family and friends of the murder victim desperately wanted to know why their loved one had been killed. They craved closure, a universal human need after any tragedy. But being a soldier, the perpetrator was tried and convicted in a military court. Whereas civilian criminal trials are open to the public in Morocco, it is nearly impossible for a civilian to gain access to the military's internal legal proceedings -- even for those directly affected by the crime. By effectively designating the homicide a matter of "state security," the army only stoked conspiracy theories that further fueled distrust of the government. Shining a light on the truth of the matter would have been better for the family, and better for the kingdom itself.

So I feel encouraged by the announcement of the king's intention to dramatically reduce the role of military courts in Morocco. It would be in keeping with a tradition of reforms that won acknowledgment from human rights groups in the past, notably an Equity and Reconciliation Commission which acknowledged the suffering of victims of security service brutality under the reign of King Hassan II and compensated the families for their losses. Confining military courts to military affairs would send a message that systemic reform remains possible in the Arab world -- even at a time of turmoil across the region.