Khadija Amrir : “They treated me like I wasn’t human”

7 December 2016

She has spent more time in prison than on the outside. Khadija Amrir, sentenced to death for the murder of her husband in 1995, was released on 2 August 2016 following a series of royal pardons for good conduct. Her name reverberates around the cells. It inspires admiration and emotion. Often referred to as a model prisoner during her 22 years of imprisonment, Khadija Amrir never accepted her sentence, never stopped fighting and, barely out of prison, she declared that she was ready to tell her story to help the struggle against capital punishment.

What was your life like before being sentenced to death?

I had 9 brothers and sisters. My mother died when I was 2 years old and my father remarried. I wanted to become an air hostess but my dream was cut short when my family forced me to marry the son of my step-mother – my brother basically – the year I turned 15. I had grown up with him; he didn’t feel like a husband to me. He said it might change after having children but it didn’t. I had 2 children but, despite them, I didn’t enjoy my life. I was suffocating.

In 1995, you were sentenced to death for the murder of your husband. You were 20 at the time.

4 people were accused along with me. My lawyer told me that, even if the others were sentenced, I would be okay because I had not committed the crime. When the death penalty verdict was handed down against me, I was so shocked I couldn’t say anything. They treated me like I wasn’t human; it was so unfair. I didn’t cry or scream. I spent 2 years in a state of shock, unable to speak.

And then, after 2 years I was given the opportunity to teach a literacy class in prison. I taught women who didn’t speak Arabic. I worked every day as a volunteer and it helped. I really liked teaching but life in the prison in Casablanca was very difficult because of overpopulation and violence. I couldn’t stand that environment.

After 4.5 years at Casablanca prison, you were moved to Tangiers prison.

When I arrived, they checked my file and saw that I had been well-behaved so they agreed to give me responsibilities. So, I worked in the kitchen. I earned 1,000 dirham* every three months. It’s not much but it meant I could buy a few small things.

The last execution of a prisoner sentenced to death in Morocco took place in 1993, 2 years before your own sentencing. Then the country moved into a de facto moratorium. What was your experience of the situation? Were you afraid of being executed?

They told me that if I was transferred to another prison one day it would be to execute me. I couldn’t sleep. I accepted my destiny but I was very frightened of being executed.

Were you able to have regular contact with your family?

With my father. When I was sentenced to death, he divorced by step-mother. He wanted to see me released before he died – that was his dream. He managed it. He died 40 days after my release; he was 103 years old. But, when they divorced my step-mother took custody of my children. The hardest thing for me has been not seeing them in all that time. Today, I am trying to re-establish a relationship with them but just hearing the word ‘mother’ is painful for them.

What were the stages of your release?

I made requests for pardon with the help of my lawyers, without ever giving up. I asked everyone. I always had a letter with me so as to be able to give it to anyone who came. And I wanted to have an irreproachable file at any price, even if that meant being insulted in prison without answering back, to make sure that no behaviour problems could be noted in my file. 9 years after my death sentence, I obtained my first royal pardon. My sentenced was commuted to life imprisonment but for me that was nearly the same thing. Not having a release date was terrible. In prison, everyone had a calendar where they crossed off the months as they passed. But I didn’t have one and I dreamed of being able to cross off the days on a calendar like the others.

Then another pardon was granted to me and life imprisonment was commuted to 30 years in prison. Finally, I had my release date. 2023 – still a long way ahead but I had a feeling I would leave earlier. I never lost hope. In 2013, another prisoner sentenced to death arrived. I helped her because she wanted to commit suicide. I gave her hope, I told her “look, I was never supposed to leave here and here I am now with a release date!”

Then you came into contact with the National Human Rights Council.

It was my lawyer who put me in touch with them. I called them and only 10 months later I was released. I want to thank Mr Essabar, the General Secretary of the CNDH [National Human Rights Council]**. Thanks to him, I was released. During the Feast of the Throne, the King granted pardons but my name was not one of them. Then, a guard came to tell me that they had reduced my sentence by 2 years and that I would be released in 2021! That was on the Friday. The following Monday, my lawyer told me that I was free, I collected my things and I left immediately.

I can never thank His Majesty King Mohammed VI enough for granting me his royal pardon. My thanks also go to Mr Essabar for his commitment and his dedication to his noble mission to raise awareness against the death penalty.

You have been out of prison for 2 months. How are you? What are your thoughts about the future?

Life is still difficult, particularly financially. I depend on the Mohammed VI Foundation for social rehabilitation for former prisoners to find work. Some friends are also helping me in my quest and I thank them for their support. I do not want to depend on other people, I want to work. During my years in prison, I earned a diploma for sewing and another for hairdressing. I have updated my CV and I am looking for a job. I also want to tell my story. The struggle must continue, we must continue to help people on death row, especially because some of them are innocent. If they are executed and it is then discovered that they were innocent, what will we do then?

* About 93 euros.
** The CNDH confirms that, represented by its General Secretary, Mr Essabar, as well as a delegation from the same Council, it made visits to women sentenced to death in Morocco, of which there are three. This visit was the first contact Ms Amrir had with Mr Mohammed Essabar, known for his activism for abolition of the death penalty.

Propos recueillis par Bérangère Portalier