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August 22 2008 | MOROCCO


Death row prisoners -some 150 inmates- are living in sub-human, "life-threatening conditions", according to leading NGOs and rights activists

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RIGHTS-MOROCCO: Firing Squads Silent - But Death Hovers

By Abderrahim El Ouali  
CASABLANCA, Morocco, Aug 19 (IPS) - Morocco's death row prisoners -- some 150 inmates -- are living in sub-human, "life-threatening conditions", according to leading NGOs and rights activists
 "The general situation of Morocco's prison inmates, especially those on death row, is absolutely catastrophic and inhumane," Mohamed Kouhlal, a writer specialising in human rights issues, told IPS
 Conditions on death row were "even worse than execution itself", added Al El Ouakili, a well-known writer and death penalty abolitionist campaigner
 Kouhlal and El Ouakili are two of several activists who have written investigative reports recently on the situation in Moroccan jails. These have been confirmed by photographs smuggled out of prison showing inmates packed into cells like sardines without an inch of room to stand and step between dozens of prostrate bodies. These have appeared on Internet blogs
 On Jul. 8, ten NGOs also issued a joint statement calling on the government to introduce urgent reforms for the health and welfare of the prison inmates, especially those on death row
 The NGOs acted after the general delegate of the penal services Hafid Benhachem refused to meet them to discuss their "grave concerns"
 Earlier, the Moroccan Prisons Watch, an independent organisation monitoring prison conditions, issued its own critical report on conditions in Moroccan jails. It highlighted the under-funding by the authorities which made it impossible to provide the minimum essential sanitary conditions for the health of inmates
 "Humidity is causing serious illnesses such as asthma, skin and eye diseases," Khalid Dimal, a journalist on the al-Massae weekly, told IPS, adding that inmates were not being issued with clothing or shoes
 "The ever-present threat of execution for those on death row is also causing serious mental illnesses," Kouhlal added
 Dimal said the prison authorities often failed to provide adequate medical treatment for sick prisoners
 "It's up to the whim of the prison authorities whether medicines are authorised," he charged, "and when they are issued, it is always cheap medicines and weeks late."   The last execution carried out in Morocco was in 1993. But the courts continue to issue death sentences. In 2007, one death sentence was handed down, according to Amnesty International
 Kouhlal said the suffering and isolation of the death row inmates was made worse by imprisoning most of them in the central jail of Kenitra, 130 kilometres north of Casablanca
 "This is far from their families. It really amounts to a form of collective punishment." Most of their relatives were poor and the travel costs were a burden
 El Ouakili added that the families of death row inmates were also experiencing discrimination in their "professional and school careers"
 Moroccan Prisons Watch, in its 2007 report, highlighted serious under- nourishment of prisoners. It said that this was mainly due to prison mismanagement
 "Prisoners are being served up food that's not even fit for sewer rats," Kouhlal said
 Women on death row -- and there are believed to be three -- were treated no differently than men, according to El Ouakili
 The state's only show of leniency to them was in Article 21 of the criminal code which stipulated that the execution of a pregnant woman should be delayed by 40 days after childbirth, he said
 Rights activists have also criticised the lack of vocational training programmes for death row prisoners and those who have had their sentences commuted to life imprisonment. By the mid-1990s, King Hassan II, who ruled Morocco from 1961 to 1999, commuted the sentences of more than 200 death row inmates to life imprisonment. Mohamed VI, who succeeded him, has also commuted death sentences
 "There are actually no education and reintegration programmes for these inmates," El Ouakili said
 The only exception was for minors who were able to attend handicraft classes in the Childhood Protection Centres
 This amounted to the state saying they were "beings of lower rank without any possible future", he said
 One of the most immediate reforms now being sought by human rights activists is for Morocco to set a maximum period of years in prison for a life sentence. This would mean that several hundred "lifers" could then expect to be released from prison before they die. It would also pave the way for eventual abolition of the death penalty.

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