News Is Mostly Grim across North Africa, Report Finds
(Rabat) - Human rights conditions deteriorated across North Africa in 2009, with unfair trials in political cases the norm, and a narrowing space for independent journalists and associations to operate, Human Rights Watch said today in its World Report 2010.
Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia are among the 15 North African and Middle Eastern countries, and more than 90 countries worldwide, covered in the 612-page World Report 2010, Human Rights Watch's 20th annual global review of human rights practices. The report argues that nations responsible for the worst human rights abuses have over the past year intensified a concerted attack against human rights defenders and organizations that document abuse.
"Morocco cracked down hard on those who broke the taboos against critical discussion of the monarchy, Islam, and Western Sahara," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. "The presidents of Algeria and Tunisia, both re-elected after the constitutions were amended so they could run yet again, showed no signs of allowing greater space for dissent."
The report says there was backsliding on human rights overall in Morocco, undermining progress earlier in the decade. The government imprisoned a magazine editor and a human rights activist for raising sensitive topics, increased politically motivated travel restrictions against Sahrawi activists, and convicted political activists in unfair trials.
President Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali of Tunisia, re-elected a fifth time with no real opposition, tolerated almost no dissent, using unfair trials and omnipresent plainclothes police to stifle the ability of Tunisians to speak and associate freely.
President Abdelaziz Bouteflika of Algeria, also re-elected by a huge margin, maintained Algeria's state of emergency, under which civil liberties, such as the right to organize meetings and demonstrations, are tightly restricted.
Repressive Legislation Punishes Government Critics
Morocco has a lively civil society and independent press. But authorities, aided by complaisant courts, use repressive legislation to punish and imprison peaceful opponents, especially those who violate taboos against criticizing the king or the monarchy, questioning the "Moroccanness" of Western Sahara, or "denigrating" Islam.
The government relies on laws providing prison terms for "defamatory" or "false" speech to prosecute critical reporting and commentary. Driss Chahtane, editor of al-Mish'al weekly, has been in prison since October for an article about the king's health. A human rights activist, Chekib el-Khayari from Nador, is completing the first year of a three-year sentence for "gravely insulting state institutions" because he accused state officials of complicity in illegal drug-trafficking. On November 14, Moroccan authorities summarily deported one Sahrawi activist, Aminatou Haidar, on the pretext that she had renounced her Moroccan citizenship by the manner in which she had completed a border entry form. The government allowed her to return home 33 days later under international pressure.
On July 28 the Rabat Court of Appeals convicted all 35 defendants in the so-called "Belliraj" case of forming a terrorist network, basing the verdicts almost entirely on the statements attributed to the defendants by the police, even though most defendants had repudiated those statements before the investigating judge and all repudiated the statements at trial. The court refused to investigate allegations of torture and falsified statements. The defendants included six well-known political figures, including two party leaders.
"Morocco's backtracking on rights became apparent to all during 2009," Whitson said. "Developments in 2010 will reveal whether authorities intend to reinforce this negative trend or put the country back on a path of progress on rights."
Human Rights Watch said that the two most significant steps Morocco could take to resume progress are to repeal laws that penalize nonviolent speech or protest that crosses the "red lines:" criticizing the monarchy, Morocco's claim to the Western Sahara, or Islam; and to implement King Mohammed VI's call for consolidating judicial independence by ensuring that courts respect the rights of defendants to challenge incriminating evidence, such as their statements to the police, and to present pertinent witnesses and other evidence in their own defense.
No Space for Opposition Voices
President Ben Ali won a fifth term in a campaign that allowed no space for opposition voices on the critical issues. Authorities prevent Tunisian human rights organizations and independent journalists from operating freely, and the police impose heavy and arbitrary restrictions on the liberties of released political prisoners.
The country, which has one of the region's longest traditions of independent human rights activity, is today without a single human rights monitoring group that is allowed to operate both legally and freely. The year ended with journalists Taoufik Ben Brik and Zouhair Makhlouf behind bars for their critical reporting and commentary, and hundreds of young men serving prison terms on charges under the anti-terrorism law, even though they were never charged with preparing or carrying out specific acts of violence.
"Tunisia's intolerance for human rights dissent makes it a prime example of a worldwide trend among repressive countries to cover up abuses by trying to silence the messenger," Whitson said.
Tunisia's top priority for 2010 should be to strengthen judicial independence by ensuring that trials are fair, that defendants enjoy all their rights to present relevant evidence, and that judges issue verdicts based on the evidence presented before them in court, Human Rights Watch said.
Restrictions Limit Civil Liberties
Algeria endured its 18th year under an emergency law that restricts civil liberties. Authorities banned public gatherings, such as outdoor demonstrations and even seminars organized by human rights organizations. The families of the thousands of Algerians whom state agents "disappeared" during the political strife of the 1990s received little or no information about the fate of their loved ones. Meanwhile, the 2006 Law on Peace and National Reconciliation provided a legal framework for the impunity enjoyed de facto by the perpetrators of "disappearances" and other atrocities committed during the 1990s, and for the penalization of criticism of the way the state handled political violence during that era. And, as in Morocco and Tunisia, journalists risked prison terms because of laws that chill free expression by providing penal sanctions for defamation.
"In Algeria, political violence is down compared to when President Bouteflika first took office in 1999," Whitson said. "But while Algerians are safer physically, they are less free when it comes to criticizing and challenging government policies."
Human Rights Watch urged Algeria to roll back the restrictions that muzzle independent media and civil society, and that criminalize questioning the state's handling of the political violence of the 1990s.