Morocco penal reforms spark lively debate on morality

Friday 17/04/2015
Significant evolution

RABAT - An overhaul of Morocco's penal code has triggered a lively debate on morality in the conservative North African nation, where homosexuality and sexual relations outside marriage are forbidden.

But calls to legalise extra-marital sex or abolish the death penalty appear to be a step too far for authorities in the country, where Islam is the state religion.

Morocco's penal code has remained largely unchanged since it was first adopted in 1962.

But now, 40 sections are to be repealed, 187 added and 576 amended, Justice Minister Mustapha Ramid, of the Islamist Justice and Development Party (PJD), said during a public consultation in Rabat.

In a country where tradition is paramount, the proposed changes to the basic law have prompted much hand-wringing.

As part of the consultation process, citizens are being urged to register their opinions on the ministry's website.

This is an expression of "significant evolution in terms of freedom and respect for human rights in Morocco", said Ramid.

He argued that the process meets the requirements of the country's new constitution adopted in 2011, in the wake of the Arab Spring.

Some changes have been broadly welcomed, such as alternative penalties aimed at reducing prison overcrowding as well as criminalising torture, genocide and human trafficking.

But the amendments have not inspired unanimity on issues related to morals.

Extra-marital sex will still be illegal, although the jail term for offenders will be reduced from a year to a maximum of three months. However, a fine of up to 21,000 dirhams ($2,140, nearly 2,000 euros) will also apply.

And the penalty for failing to fast in public during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan remains six months in jail, although that can now be substituted by a maximum fine of 10,000 dirhams.

Ramid said he was open to dialogue, but there was "no question of challenging the Islamic identity of the state".

Under the changes, the offence of "contempt against religions" is introduced, punishable by between six months and two years in prison.

Adultery, proselytising and homosexuality remain banned.

There is also no change in the death penalty: despite not having been implemented since a moratorium imposed in 1993, it stays on the statute books while dozens of prisoners are on death row.

Such provisions have caused outcry among opponents to the text, especially on social networks where the hashtag #Code_Penal_No_Pasaran ("The Penal Code will not Pass") has been trending.

Some politicians have also added their voices to the dissenters.

Nouzha Skalli, a deputy for the Party of Progress and Socialism (PPS) and a former family and social development minister, said banning sex outside marriage is "unrealistic".

Enforcing it would mean "putting all young people in prison", she observed.

Lawyer Abderrahim Jamai said during one public consultation that the new basic law is actually a step backwards when it comes to personal freedoms.

"The penal code is the most important text after the constitution, and must reflect a vision for the next half century," he said.

Newspaper leader writers have also joined the debate.

A pro-reforms editorial by Saad Benmansour headlined "Never say never" in the daily Morocco Today calls for the widest possible consultation on the changes.

The justice ministry's position "probably reflects the opinion of a large number or a majority" of the country's 35 million people, he wrote.

"Fifty or 60 years ago, who would have thought that Morocco would undergo its revolution via a number of once taboo issues?" he asked.

As an example, Benmansour cited the reform in 2004 of the "moudawana" or family code, which gave more rights to women.

However, the daily At-Tajdid which is close to the justice minister's own PJD, denounced "extremists" seeking to liberalise moral legislation and "impose on Moroccans, under the cover of universalism, choices rejected in the past".

It warned of "discord" if laws contrary to "religious and core values" were passed.