Prisoner pardon shows how much Morocco has changed
When thousands of people marched in Casablanca, Morocco, earlier this year to condemn the sexual abuse of children, they had no idea that this North African kingdom would become the theatre for an international scandal.
A number of suspected foreign offenders have recently been jailed in Morocco. In May 2013, a Casablanca court sentenced a 60-year-old French man to 12 years in jail on paedophilia charges.
And last June, a 59-year-old British man was arrested in Tetouan over accusations of raping a six-year-old girl. These arrests reveal the extent to which the kingdom has become a destination for sexual tourism.
Separately, Daniel Galvan Vina, a 63-year-old child-sex offender who raped 11 children, aged between four and 15, was released from a Moroccan prison on July 30, as part of a royal pardon that marked the 14th anniversary of King Mohammed VI's accession to the throne of Morocco.
The release of this child sex offender, who was sentenced in September 2011 to 30 years in prison for paedophilia, but who actually spent only 18 months in prison, sparked protests across Morocco.
Thousands demonstrated outside parliament in Rabat where dozens of people were injured in clashes with police. Protests were also reported in the cities of Tangier, Kenitra and Tetouan, as well as outside the Moroccan embassy in Paris.
A royal statement said King Mohammed VI had been "unaware of the gravity of the Spaniard's crimes". The king has since fired the head of prisons and repealed the pardon.
It is a normal practice for King Mohammed VI to pardon prisoners on special occasions such as Throne Day. However, matters were made worse when Morocco's justice ministry said that the pardons "were based on national interests and friendly relations" with Spain. Galvan Vina was among 48 Spanish prisoners pardoned by the king after a request from Spain's King Juan Carlos, who made an official visit to Morocco in mid-July.
The willingness of the Moroccan government to release such an individual suggests that Moroccan children are victims of a double whammy. First by Morocco's mass poverty and sharp inequalities, and second by the government's lack of sympathy.
Yet it has to be mentioned that unlike in the past when the government followed brutal tactics in dealing with opponents, the monarchy under King Mohammed VI has taken on a more modern and reformist image.
Morocco's powerful monarchy has seemingly managed to circumvent the revolutionary fervour of the Arab Spring by opting for gradual change. The Alaouite Dynasty (the name of the current Moroccan royal family) gained control of most of Morocco in 1664.
But the Daniel Galvan Vina case shows that the democratic agenda and gradual change have fallen short of the popular demands for better governance.
Though the king has promised an investigation into the royal pardon, the offender had already left the country. He is now detained in Murcia. The Spanish authorities say he will be transferred to Madrid, where the high court will hear the case.
According to the Spanish daily newspaper El País, Galvan Vina is a native Christian Iraqi from Kurdistan. He is a former Iraqi intelligence officer who collaborated with the intelligence services of the international coalition against Saddam Hussein and has been rewarded with a nice windfall, a new country of residence and a new identity. The name Galvan Vina seems to be a new identity granted by the Spanish intelligence services as a reward for his collaboration.
The Spanish intelligence services requested the Spanish royal family appeal for Galvan Vina's name to be added to a list of 48 prisoners to be pardoned by King Mohammed VI. And this gives credence to the statement of Morocco's Ministry of Justice that the pardon was "based on national interests". It is also possible that other countries put pressure on Morocco to release Galvan Vina.
For many analysts, nevertheless, the pardon was a mistake and such a decision suggests being out of step with public opinion.
The king has realised, however, that he must reckon with "the street" and the fact that Morocco has changed and the rule of law cannot be bypassed. Society has also evolved considerably and public opinion has also become a real and influential player.
Dr Abdelkader Cheref is a visiting professor at the State University of New York at Potsdam
Updated: September 10, 2013 04:00 AM