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A declining tolerance for dissent in Morocco

This year witnessed violent dispersals of peaceful protests against planned education cuts [AFP]

Date of publication: 29 January, 2016

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A new Human Rights Watch report has criticised Morocco's 'diminishing' tolerance for dissident voice in 2015, documenting numerous cases of human rights violations.
Tolerance for dissident voices in Morocco and Western Sahara diminished last year, a leading human rights organisation has found.  

"Morocco may not be rocked by turmoil and bloodshed like many countries of the Middle East, but neither is it the model of reform that it claims to be," said Sarah Leah Whitson from Human Rights Watch [HRW]. 

Moroccan authorities have tightened restrictions on domestic and international human rights groups, systematically prevented gatherings supporting self-determination for the contested territory of Western Sahara, and failed to uphold fair trial rights in political and security-related cases, according to the HRW report.

HRW executive director Kenneth Roth argued that the spread of terrorist attacks beyond the Middle East and the huge flows of refugees spawned by repression and conflict led many governments to curtail rights in "misguided efforts" to protect their security.

"At the same time, authoritarian governments throughout the world, fearful of peaceful dissent that is often magnified by social media, embarked on the most intense crackdown on independent groups in recent times," Roth stated.

Freedom of expression

According to the HRW report, Moroccan authorities have subjected print and online media to prosecution and harassment for any criticism of the king, the monarchy, Islam, or Morocco's claim over Western Sahara.

On Sunday, Moroccan journalist Ali Anouzla said he would stand trial in February over Western Sahara comments made to German newspaper Bild last month.

The prosecution service opened an investigation after he mentioned that Western Sahara was one of three "red lines" for Moroccan journalists.

According to Bild, Anouzla listed these limits as "the monarchy, Islam and the occupied Western Sahara".

Anouzla, who faces up to five years in jail if convicted, said he never called the Western Sahara "occupied" and called the translation "inexact".

Morocco's authorities must call a halt to their ongoing campaign to quash dissenting voices and scare people into self-censorship
- Said Boumedouha, Amnesty International

"Morocco's authorities must drop the charges against Ali Anouzla and stop prosecuting journalists for doing their work, as well as peaceful activists, on state security and counter-terrorism charges," Said Boumedouha, Amnesty International's Middle East and North Africa Deputy Director, said earlier this week.

"They must call a halt to their ongoing campaign to quash dissenting voices and scare people into self-censorship."

The HRW report also cited the case of Moroccan academic and rights activist Maati Monjib, who was subjected to a travel ban over alleged "financial violations" while he headed the Ibn Rushd Institute for investigative journalism.

The 55-year-old academic ended a three-week hunger strike in October 2015 after the judiciary finally lifted the travel ban, which was described by a member of Monjib's support committee as "political" rather than "financial".

"The authorities are annoyed at his positions and writings and are using illegal means to exert pressure on him," committee member Sion Assidon said at the time.

Freedom of association

During 2015, Moroccan authorities continued to "to arbitrarily prevent or impede many associations from obtaining legal registration", the report said.

Despite allowing Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch researchers relatively unimpeded access for nearly 25 years, Morocco expelled two Amnesty researchers in June and demanded in September that Human Rights Watch suspend its activities in Morocco until officials could schedule a meeting with the organization to discuss its "bias."

     
      Monjib began his hunger strike after airport authorities
prevented him from travelling to Norway [AFP]

In addition, the authorities prohibited dozens of activities prepared by legally recognised human rights associations, notably the Moroccan Association for Human Rights (AMDH) and its branches.

Maati Monjib is one of several activists charged with accepting foreign funding to "harm internal security" after organising a foreign-funded workshop to train people to use smartphones for citizen journalism.

Amnesty International described the trial of the Moroccan journalists and activists as the "latest episode in a mounting crackdown on freedom of expression in Morocco".

"This case clearly demonstrates that Morocco's government is stepping up its attacks on press freedom," said Boumedouha.

"Helping Moroccans harness smartphone technology to report on what is going on in the country is not a crime, and it is outrageous that it is being treated as a state security offence," he added.

"Moroccans have the right to receive and spread information about what is happening in their country."

Freedom of assembly

Moroccan authorities have "forcibly dispersed" some peaceful gatherings, marches, and rallies demanding political reform and protesting government actions, the report said.

"In Western Sahara, authorities prohibited all public gatherings deemed hostile to Morocco's contested rule over that territory, dispatching large numbers of police who blocked access to demonstrations before they could even assemble."

Though not included in the recent HRW report, 2016 saw the violent dispersal of peaceful protests against planned education cuts in several cities across the country.

In Western Sahara, authorities prohibited all public gatherings deemed hostile to Morocco's contested rule over that territory, dispatching large numbers of police who blocked access to demonstrations before they could even assemble
- HRW world report

Shocking images of the assault sparked outrage and drew local and international condemnations that denounced the excessive use of force by the police.

"Clubbing and tossing stones at peaceful demonstrators would fall well outside the realm of lawful means of dispersing a peaceful demonstration," Eric Goldstein, deputy Middle East and North Africa director of Human Rights Watch, said earlier this month.

"The Moroccan authorities should make sure the police and security forces don't use unnecessary violence against demonstrators and to hold accountable anyone who does."

'Positive steps'

Despite "regressing" on human rights in several areas in 2015, Morocco has "advanced" in a few other areas, according to HRW.

Positive steps included the first-ever legal recognition of a Sahrawi human rights organisation highly critical of Moroccan rule, as well as provisional legal residency for foreigners considered by UNHCR as refugees.

In addition, a new law ending military trials for civilians took effect in 2015, although it did not benefit prisoners already convicted by military tribunals.

Morocco also registered several, but not all, associations formed to defend the rights of migrants in Morocco.

According to HRW, the coming year will reveal whether Morocco intends to maintain the ban on visits that it imposed on Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch in 2015, or to resume a policy of general openness toward international human rights organisations.

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