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Human Rights Watch has called on Moroccan judges to halt convictions based on confessions obtained through torture, saying in a report released on Friday that failure to probe such claims encouraged further abuses.
"The country's judicial reform agenda needs to include stronger safeguards to ensure that courts discard as evidence any statement made to the police under torture or ill-treatment," the group said.
The 100-page report, entitled "Just Sign Here: Unfair Trials based on Confessions to the Police in Morocco", focused on five politically sensitive trials between 2009 and 2013 and involved 77 defendants, all but one of whom were jailed.
It alleged that the courts convicted and imprisoned the defendants primarily on the basis of contested confessions, and failed to conduct serious investigations into claims of torture during interrogation.
"This failure by the courts effectively encourages the police to use torture, ill-treatment and falsification to obtain statements," the New York-based watchdog said.
Contacted by HRW, Moroccan authorities said "the defendants only complained of torture during the trial, which is not credible," according to Eric Goldstein, the group's deputy director for the Middle East and North Africa.
Speaking at a news conference in Rabat, Goldstein called for judicial reforms under way in Morocco to take into consideration the question of contested confessions, "which is at the heart of the independence of the judiciary".
"There are international norms regarding pre-trial detention which must be respected to ensure a fair trial. We are asking the Moroccan authorities to abide by them," he said.
In the face of the Arab Spring protests that swept North Africa in 2011, the kingdom adopted a new constitution with provisions for judicial reform which purported "to strengthen judicial independence and defendants' rights and to ban torture and arbitrary detention".
"But only when judges show the will, skill and courage to do so -- and to discard confessions that are suspect -- can we say that judicial reform is really under way," said HRW regional director Sarah Leah Whitson.
A Moroccan government source said some aspects of the report were exaggerated and did not reflect "all the efforts made" in the area of judicial reform.
"There is a real political will inspired by the new constitution to address and resolve the scenarios" raised in the report, the source said, in an emailed response to AFP.
In the report, HRW highlighted the case of 25 Sahrawis jailed by a military tribunal in February -- amid international concerns over claims they were tortured -- for their alleged role in the deaths of 11 policemen during violence in the disputed Western Sahara region in 2010.
The rights group called on the authorities to either grant a new and fair trial in a civilian court or release the 21 defendants still in prison, nine of whom were jailed for life.
Last September, UN special rapporteur on torture Juan Mendez, visiting Morocco at the invitation of the king, said torture or cruel and inhumane treatment of detainees was "very frequent".
Mendez said a culture of human rights was emerging in Morocco, and praised authorities for some of the steps they had taken, notably the establishment of the National Council of Human Rights in 2010 and the new constitution.
But he said the country was a long way from eliminating the practice of torture.