The power to grant a pardon can be a useful element in any country's legal system. It allows a measure of discretion in cases where the law is believed to have treated someone unfairly.
"As in absolute governments the king is law, so in free countries the law ought to be king; and there ought to be no other."
There is no doubt that pardons and other discretionary powers, if used injudiciously, can undermine the rule of law. For that reason, many countries have strict rules about the sort of circumstances where a pardon can be granted.
This is not what happens, however, in most of the Arab countries – especially the monarchies. Granting pardons adds a further arbitrary dimension to what is often already an arbitrary system of justice.
Autocratic rulers love granting pardons, since it makes them appear magnanimous towards people who in many cases should not have been convicted in the first place.
Some of them, for example, have involved women who were prosecuted for having been raped. In 2007, the Saudi king "forgave" a woman who had been sentenced to 200 lashes after being gang-raped at knifepoint, and last month the ruler of Dubaipardoned a Norwegian woman who was sentenced to 16 months in jail after complaining to police that she had been raped.
Though the release of such prisoners is welcome, it does nothing to enhance confidence in the justice system as a whole, nor does it usually result in changing the law that gives rise to these sentences in the first place.
Pardons are also used as a political expedient, either for internal reasons – as when the emir of Kuwait "forgave" those who had been jailed for "insulting" him on Twitter – or in cases involving foreigners which might jeopardise international relations.
There is also a common practice in the Arab countries of pardoning large numbers of prisoners to mark special occasions such as Ramadan – a month that Muslims associate with forgiveness.
Last week the king of Morocco celebrated Throne Day (the anniversary of his accession to the throne) by pardoning 48 Spanish prisoners. This, we are expected to believe, was a sign of King Mohammed's magnanimity, though his decision is thought to be the result of a visit to Morocco by the king of Spain just a couple of weeks earlier.
Whatever the reasons behind it, the move backfired on the king because one of those released was Daniel Galvan Viña, a 64-year-old Spaniard whe had been jailed for raping 11 children in Morocco aged between four to 15.
News of Viña's release – he left the country a day later – triggered street protests in several Moroccan cities. AFP
"Protesters slammed the pardon as 'an international shame' with one demonstrator saying the state 'defends the rape of Moroccan children'.
"One young woman student told AFP: 'This is the first time I have been to a demonstration because I am outraged by this pardon which has set this paedophile free'."
This brought a predictable response from the authorities. "In running clashes with the demonstrators, baton-wielding police prevented them from gathering in front of the Moroccan parliament in the centre of the capital Rabat, injuring several people including journalists," Reuters reports.
The significance of these protests is not to be underestimated, since they implied direct criticism of the king – something which is normally taboo in Morocco.
Meanwhile King Mohammed, who had sought to take the credit for the pardons initially, is now back-pedalling furiously to dissociate himself from the blunder and is pleading ignorance.
A statement issued from the royal palace yesterday said:
"His Majesty King Mohammed VI, may God assist him, was never informed in any way and at any time, of the gravity of the heinous crimes for which the person was convicted."
The statement went on to say it was "obvious" the king would never have consented to the man's release had he known, and that a "thorough investigation" is under way "to identify those responsible for this neglect". So it looks as if some hapless official will be expected to carry the blame.
A post (in French) on Ibn Kafka's blog looks in detail at the legal procedures for granting pardons in Morocco and discusses what may have happened in this case.
Adding a further dimension to the story, a report in the Spanish newspaper El Pais says the release of Daniel Galvan Viña had been requested by the Spanish intelligence agency, CNI. Although holding Spanish citizenship, he appears to have been born in Iraq and may have done intelligence work there.
Posted by Brian Whitaker
Sunday, 4 August 2013