Human Rights Provisions Should Protect the Right to Demonstrate
(Rabat) - The constitutional revisions approved in the July 1, 2011 referendum can significantly advance Moroccans' rights, but only if authorities use these new constitutional principles to reform repressive laws and practices, Human Rights Watch said today.
Among the practices that need to be brought into line with the constitution is the police response to peaceful protest, Human Rights said. Since Moroccans began demonstrating in the streets on February 20 to demand major political reforms, inspired by the protest movements sweeping the Arab world, the police have responded on several occasions with extreme brutality. They have beaten peaceful protesters to the point where scores required medical care such as stitches and treatment of broken bones. At least one died in the hospital after being beaten, although the cause of death remains unclear.
"The real test of the Moroccan government's commitment to human rights is in whether it respects its citizens' rights in practice," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. "It's not enough to adopt a constitution that affirms, ‘No one may harm the physical or moral integrity of another in any circumstance' and then allow the police to club peaceful demonstrators."
The constitutional reforms include several provisions that reinforce citizens' rights, including gender equality, freedom of expression "in all its forms," freedom of association, assembly and peaceful protest, the right to a fair trial, and the criminalization of torture, arbitrary detention, and forced disappearance. The constitution precludes press censorship. It requires the authorities to tell anyone they detain "immediately" of the reasons and of their rights. The amendments also grant powers to the prime minister that previously were exclusively the king's.
Among the many Moroccan laws that need to be brought into line with the new constitution's sweeping affirmation of these principles are provisions of the press code and penal code that provide prison terms for expression, Human Rights Watch said. These include speech or writing that "defames" public officials or state institutions under articles 45 and 46 of the press code or that "brings harm to" Islam, the monarchy, or Morocco's sovereignty claim over Western Sahara, under article 41.
The organizers of most of the demonstrations in recent months are from the February 20 Movement for Change, a loosely knit and mostly youth-based group inspired by the uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia. The group's slogans focus on freedom and democracy, and an end to corruption and repression. At times they have made more specific calls, such as to vastly curtail the king's powers and prerogatives and to free political prisoners. The powerful Islamist movement Justice and Spirituality, the far-left small party the Democratic Path, and the Moroccan Association for Human Rights, among others, have endorsed the February 20 Movement's goals.
On several occasions, including during much of June, authorities did not interfere with demonstrations the movement had organized in major cities. But on several other occasions since February, security forces in Rabat, Casablanca, and elsewhere assaulted demonstrators.
Human Rights Watch interviewed protesters in Rabat, Casablanca, and Kénitra who were beaten. They said that security forces assaulted protesters as they were gathering, with no warning, charging them with batons and striking them on their bodies and, in some cases, their heads. In other instances, as protesters were dispersing, security forces pursued protesters down side streets to continue beating them.
The beatings they described would appear designed to mete out summary punishment. Their numerous and consistent accounts contradict official claims that the security forces used only the force necessary to disperse "unauthorized" gatherings, or to disperse people who blocked traffic or disobeyed orders.
There is no obvious explanation for the government's vacillation between allowing peaceful demonstrations on some days and, on other days, violently repressing peaceful demonstrations that were organized under the same slogans, Human Rights Watch said.
The independent Moroccan Association for Human Rights says that it has documented over 100 cases of injuries to protesters inflicted by the security forces between February and the end of May. To the best of Human Rights Watch's knowledge, no member of the security forces has been prosecuted for using violence unjustifiably against protesters.
Some of the harshest police violence occurred at peaceful protests on May 15, 22, 28, and 29. Human Rights Watch interviewed numerous people who tried to take part in those demonstrations and in earlier ones where police beat protesters.
On May 15 in Témara, as protesters tried to hold a picnic outside a facility thought to be a secret prison, police intercepted arriving demonstrators, blocked them, and beat many of them, pursuing them as they fled to continue beating them.
On May 22 in Rabat and Casablanca, police in large numbers were waiting for demonstrators and began to beat them, and in some cases detain and beat them, as soon as they arrived.
On May 28 and 29, protesters in Rabat, Casablanca, and Kénitra were beaten severely and in some cases detained.
Moroccan law requires organizers of an outdoor demonstration to notify authorities in advance, and authorities may forbid the demonstration in writing if they deem it likely to "disturb the public order," under article 13 of the law on public gatherings.
Some of the February 20 Movement protest organizers said that they had not been notifying authorities because they believed the government would forbid their protests under any circumstances. A few said that even though they had not notified the authorities, the authorities served them with written notifications that the protests they were planning would be unauthorized.
For example, Karim Tazy, a 52-year-old Casablanca businessman who supports the protests, received one such notice on May 26, signed by the director of general affairs, Najib Grani, under the order of the Wali (governor) of Casablanca, warning him that a demonstration planned for May 29 was not authorized.
Even when dispersing demonstrations that authorities deem unauthorized or threatening to the public order, international standards allow law enforcement agents to use force only as a last resort. According to the UN Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials, in the dispersal of assemblies that are "unlawful but non-violent, law enforcement officials shall avoid the use of force or, where that is not practicable, shall restrict such force to the minimum extent necessary" to disperse the protest.
Article 19 of Morocco's law on public gatherings requires law enforcement agents to issue three oral warnings to disperse via megaphones before they scatter protesters forcibly. The beatings with batons of peaceful protesters, with no warning, and continuing long after protests have been dispersed, violate these standards.
Lawyers representing protesters told Human Rights Watch that a number of protesters have filed formal complaints to the courts about the beatings. Prosecutors have in some cases charged protesters with participating in an "unauthorized" gathering or other charges such as disobeying orders of a public agent, constitution of a "criminal gang," and destruction of private property. But authorities have not, to Human Rights Watch's knowledge, announced any investigations or prosecutions of those responsible for the brutal violence against the protesters, except for the investigation into the death of a protester, Kamal Ammari, in Safi (see below).
"Moroccans voted for a constitution that contains bold language in favor of human rights," Whitson said. "Nothing can show more quickly that their ‘yes' vote means reforms in practice than a new respect by authorities for the right to demonstrate and sanctions against officers who beat protesters without cause."
May 15, Témara
The February 20 Movement tried to organize a picnic outside the headquarters of the General Direction of the Surveillance of the Territory (Direction générale de la Surveillance du territoire, or DGST), which is widely suspected of housing a secret interrogation facility, despite government denials. The purpose, the organizers said, was to support political reform and the release of political prisoners via an afternoon of plays, poetry, and music.
The event never took place because the security forces intercepted the would-be participants as they gathered in front of the nearby Aswak Essalam supermarket. In some cases, security forces stopped protesters as they drove up to the supermarket, asked for their IDs and searched their bags, and then ordered them to leave.
Other protesters who reached the supermarket said that the security forces detained them or beat them to keep them from going further. Mohammed Allal el-Fajeri, a 34-year-old journalist from the city of Salé, said that when he got to the supermarket, security forces asked him and a friend for their IDs, took photos of them, and detained them:
The police were clubbing people everywhere, with no warning.... They put me in a big police vehicle and called me gay, a traitor, and a criminal. Then they took me to the police station in Témara. There they took our cellphones and got us to give them our phones' PIN codes by warning us that they could use "other means" to get us to comply. They went into our phones' address books, copied phone numbers and deleted our pictures ... They asked us questions about our work, families, and political affiliations. They kept me at the police station asking questions during four-and-a-half hours, when I had been at the protest for only 15 minutes ... Afterward they let me go."
A protest leader, Oussama el-Khlifi, a 23-year-old from Rabat who has a degree in information sciences but is unemployed, told Human Rights Watch he and a few other friends made it to the intended site of the demonstration, where 100 or so people had managed to gather. But as soon as they chanted their first slogan, he said, the police moved in to disperse them.
"We ran away but the police followed us for about 800 meters," el-Khlifi said. "I was in a group of about 11 protesters, pursued by police in their cars." El-Khlifi said that he ended up in a cul-de-sac. "I tried to hide in a store but the police found me. They forced me to say, ‘Long live the king' and they hit me on my shoulder. When I didn't fall, they clubbed me on the head and I lost consciousness. When I regained consciousness, I found myself at the hospital, with a broken nose and an injured shoulder."
When Human Rights Watch interviewed el-Khlifi on June 8, injuries on his nose and elsewhere on his face were still visible. Selma Maârouf, a 22-year-old university student, also said security forces pursued and beat her after dispersing the protest.
"I tried to hide in a garage, but they followed me and kicked and beat me," Maârouf said. "I had bruises, I couldn't breathe or walk, and lost consciousness. One senior officer called me ‘a bitch' as he struck me." Maârouf said that security forces beat her and other women in the protests between their legs with clubs.
Ashraf Taïb Gouijjan, an 18-year-old high school student who also tried to reach the protest, said eight police in civilian clothes surrounded him outside the supermarket and beat him. They then left him, but when he tried to leave he was caught by another officer, who beat him. Gouijjan told Human Rights Watch:
He got me by the hair and pushed me down and started beating me with a club. When I was on the ground, holding my bag, he beat me until I let my bag go. He hit me in the jaw and legs. My jaw was not broken but for about a week it was painful to eat.
Nizar Bennamate, a 25-year-old journalism student, said that when he tried to join the demonstration, security forces took him to the back of a windowless police van and beat him and eight or nine others inside with clubs and a helmet.
"They didn't beat me on the head but everywhere else," Bennamate said. "They forced me to say, ‘Long live the king' then slapped my face ... They took us to the police station. They asked me questions and held me for about 30 minutes."
Khalid Guemouri, an Islamist protester who says that he had once been detained in Témara, said that when he tried to reach the supermarket, intelligence agents stopped him.
"They asked for our IDs and names, and took photos of us," Guemouri said. "They told us to leave or it would be dangerous. I could see other security forces beating people."
Guemouri said he received calls that day from relatives of Islamist detainees who had tried to reach Témara from other cities but had been intercepted at bus stations by police officers who told them to return home. Guemouri headed to the Rabat bus station to meet relatives of prisoners who had been able to reach Rabat, and went with them to join another demonstration that was forming in front of the Parliament building in the heart of the city. Guemouri said,
It was a sit-in by about 150 people, but when activists from the February 20 movement arrived and started chanting their slogans, the security forces moved in to beat them and violently disperse the sit-in. It lasted only three minutes... the security forces attacked us without prior warning. We were shouting slogans against corruption and tyranny, and for democracy and freedom. They beat me on the back first with clubs, and then on the head. I started to bleed from the head. As the police charged us, we kept chanting slogans like "Peaceful!" The police retreated for a while and then attacked again.
Human Rights Watch observed Guemouri's head injury on June 9 as well as a video of him in the demonstration, bleeding from the head.
Commenting to the press on the events at Témara that day, Communication Minister Khalid Naciri said that the demonstrators had not sought advance permission and that, when notified that they were acting outside the law, they opted for defiance.
May 22, Casablanca and Rabat
Hamza Mahfoudh, a 26-year old philosophy and journalism student who developed many of the slogans for the February 20 Movement, said that he tried to join a demonstration on May 22 in the Sbata neighborhood of Casablanca. But when he arrived he found security forces beating protesters, whom they outnumbered, to disperse them. Mahfoudh told Human Rights Watch:
We tried to get people to come from smaller streets into larger ones so that our numbers would be bigger .... We got about 500 people together in a side street, but when we tried to join others the security forces attacked us... I hid in a house [but when I left, the security forces] beat me on the hand and dislocated my finger. People were just chanting, "Peaceful, peaceful until the realization of freedom." Hundreds were hurt that day.
In Rabat the same day, Khalid Guemouri said that he tried to join a February 20 movement demonstration in the Akkari neighborhood at 4 p.m. But the security forces got there first.
"Everyone who arrived was beaten, so we never gathered," Guemouri said. He added that a group of demonstrators decided to regroup at Bab el-Had, closer to downtown, but when he got there, "The police went crazy and started beating anyone on the sidewalks. I saw a policeman on a bike driving into the crowd ... people tried to stop him but he threatened one guy with a gun."
Guemouri said that four security agents caught him and took him to a vehicle, where they beat him and seven others. They then took him to a police station.
"There were 17 of us at the police station, all from the February 20 movement. I was the only Islamist," Guemouri said. "They photographed, fingerprinted, and questioned us."
Guemouri said the police then took six of the group to cells underground.
"They didn't let us contact our families or lawyers.... I was not told the reason for my detention," Guemori said." He said after 48 hours the police took them before the general prosecutor on charges of disturbing traffic and participating in an "unauthorized" gathering. "After an hour, the prosecutor said he had received orders to release us."
In a May 22 dispatch, the official Maghreb Arab Presse agency stated, "These marches, more and more frequent, interfere with traffic in the cities, not to mention the harm they are causing to commercial activity. As a result, the forces of order were obliged to intervene to restore respect for the law by dispersing these marches."
May 28, Rabat; May 29, Casablanca; and May 28 and 29, Kénitra
On May 28, security forces assaulted protesters in Rabat and Kénitra, and on May 29 in Casablanca and Kénitra.
Hamza Mahfoudh, said that when he tried to join the May 29 demonstration in the Sbata neighborhood of Casablanca, police immediately targeted him and beat him so hard on the face and legs that when the police finally left, he lost consciousness when he tried to walk. Mahfoudh said:
Days after what happened I still can't feel one side of my face, and when I try to eat, it feels like an electric shock ... I had a fracture on the back of my shoulder.... Almost every day now I have to go to the hospital [for diagnostic tests] because I still pass out from time to time.
Mohammed Allal el-Fajeri, 34, one of the founders of the February 20 movement and a journalist working for www.marayapress.net, said that on May 28, the movement had also planned a rally for 5 p.m. in Salé, the large city next to Rabat where he lives. Earlier that day, authorities brought to his home a written notice saying that the rally was forbidden, even though the movement had not requested permission. El-Fajeri went to the site of the intended rally, but he said that after two minutes, plainclothes police detained him and another demonstrator and put them in a police car:
They asked what we were doing there when the march had been banned. We said we had never requested permission ... They took us to the station ... and interrogated us. They took our IDs and asked questions about our positions regarding the king ... and what we meant by chants like "Mahkzen [a Moroccan term connoting the state and public administration], get out!" or our demand to amend article 19 of the constitution [the article of the 1996 constitution, since amended, that designates the king as the "Commander of the Faithful" and the "supreme representative of the nation"]. They kept saying that if I didn't answer they would "change my behavior."
Released later that day, el-Fajeri told Human Rights Watch on June 8 that he continued to receive anonymous warnings that he will not find a job unless he tells other activists to stop protesting.
On May 29, security forces in the town of Safi, 208 kilometers southwest of Casablanca, beat Kamal Ammari, a 30-year old protester who belonged to the Islamist Justice and Spirituality association, said Mohamed Aghnaj, a Casablanca-based lawyer who also belongs to Justice and Spirituality and who represents Ammari's family. Ammari suffered a broken knee and possibly broken ribs, Aghnaj said. Ammari went home that night, but went to a hospital a couple of days later because he was not feeling well. He died in the hospital on June 2.
The office of the prosecutor announced that the team of forensic doctors concluded that Ammari died from a "extensive pneumonopathy with cerebral anoxia" that had "aggravated the effects of a simple blow to the torso that would normally have been benign but that led to death in the absence of prompt and adequate treatment." The prosecutor's office said it had "ordered the police to conduct a comprehensive and thorough inquiry to determine the circumstances of the death."
Ammari's family filed a complaint with the general prosecutor and asked for the release of the full autopsy report on Ammari's death. The report had not been released as of July 4, Aghnaj said.
Five Islamist protesters - Saïd el-Azhari, 39; el-Moustafa el-Amghari, 40; Boughaba Roudane, 42; Nabil el-Amghari, 22; and Mohammed Moujane, 50 - in the city of Kénitra, 40 kilometers northeast of Rabat, told Human Rights Watch that the security forces beat them during protests organized by the February 20 movement on May 28 and 29. Roudane said that on May 28 he was participating in a protest in Kénitra when police began beating the protesters with wooden clubs.
"I tried to protect an old man, and they hit me on the arm and broke it, Roudane said." When Human Rights Watch interviewed Roudane on June 8, his arm was in a sling.
El-Amghari said that police detained him and four other demonstrators at another protest in Kénitra on May 29, and took them into the woods, handcuffed, placed them face down on the ground, and beat them on the backs and legs with wooden clubs. They later uncuffed them and left them in the woods to walk back on their own.
February and March Attacks
Human Rights Watch received similar reports of violence in Rabat on February 21 and 23, and in Casablanca on March 13, as well as in other cities on the same dates.
On February 21, the day after the authorities had allowed protesters in cities across the country to hold the first nationwide demonstrations for political change, police in Rabat clubbed demonstrators who had gathered in Bab el-Had square. Khadija Ryadi, the president of the Moroccan Association for Human Rights, was among those who went to the hospital for treatment after being beaten.
On February 23, police in Rabat forcibly dispersed a small demonstration called by the Moroccan Democratic Network for Support of the People in front of the Libyan Cultural Center. The police beat would-be participants, including Abdelkhaleq Benzekri, Abdelillah Benabdeslam, Montassir Idrissi, and Taoufik Moussa'if. Moussa'if, a human rights lawyer who is active in the judicial reform association Adala, told Human Rights Watch that as protesters arrived, a senior officer ordered them to disperse. When they refused, the officer ordered the use of force and the police beat him on the head, shoulders, and feet. Benabdeslam, of the Moroccan Association for Human Rights, told Human Rights Watch that baton-wielding police clubbed the protesters hard on various parts of their bodies.
On March 13, Oussama el-Khlifi, a leader of the February 20 Movement said he and a friend tried to reach the site of a demonstration in Casablanca, but the police immediately detained them and beat them in a police car with batons.
"They just kept calling us traitors and atheists.... They took us to the police station ... where we were beaten and interrogated.... We were released at the end because other protesters, including political figures, held a sit-in [demanding our release]," el-Khlifi said.
Hamza Mahfoudh was also at the Casablanca demonstration on March 13, and says police beat him too.
"I found someone on the ground whose leg appeared to be broken ... I tried to get him to an ambulance, but police surrounded me and started to beat me. They took the expensive camera I had with me and smashed it," Mahfoudh said.
El-Khlifi and Mahfoudh both said that more than 100 demonstrators were detained in Casablanca that day.