(Rabat) – President François Hollande of France should press for further human rights reforms in Morocco  during his first state visit to this longtime French ally. Hollande is expected to meet with King Mohammed VI in Rabat and address the parliament while in the country on April 3 and 4, 2013. Several French ministers are scheduled to accompany the president, including Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius and Najat Vallaud Belkacem, the minister of women’s rights and government spokesperson.
The strong human rights guarantees affirmed by Morocco’s 2011 constitution have yet to be incorporated into domestic law and government practice, Human Rights Watch said. Hollande should raise ongoing human rights concerns in his meetings with Moroccan officials, including torture in detention, unfair military trials, restrictions on free expression rights, and the vulnerability of child domestic workers.
“Morocco’s political landscape is marked by considerable openness and pluralism, but Hollande should press on areas where reforms lag behind international standards,” said Sarah Leah Whitson , Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “As Morocco’s largest trade partner and bilateral assistance provider, France can play a positive role by highlighting persistent abuses and encouraging the government’s reform efforts.”
On February 17, a Rabat military court sentenced 25 Sahrawi civilians , including several human rights defenders, to prison terms, nine of them to life in prison, in an unfair trial that should not have gone before a military court. The case stems from clashes that broke out in November 2010 when security forces evacuated a protest encampment that Sahrawis had set up at Gdeim Izik, in Western Sahara. Eleven security force members and two civilians were killed. The court convicted the defendants on the basis of their own confessions, after refusing to investigate their allegations that the confessions were false and extracted through coercion or torture.
Morocco’s 2011 constitution defines torture “in all its forms” as a crime that is punishable by law. However, the United Nations special rapporteur on torture, Juan Méndez, concluded after a visit to Morocco in September that, “In practice, the safeguards against torture do not effectively operate” because without physical evidence of torture, the coerced confession remains on the record and “no serious effort is made to investigate, prosecute, and punish perpetrators.” He urged the Moroccan authorities to improve the forensic capacity of the prosecution and judiciary and ensure that defendants “have a fair opportunity to raise allegations of torture or ill-treatment.”
In addition to voicing concerns about the fairness of the Gdeim Izik trial, Hollande should support a proposal, already welcomed by the king, to amend the code of military justice so that military courts would no longer have jurisdiction to try civilians, Human Rights Watch said.
Morocco’s press and penal codes contain several provisions, contrary to international standards, that impose prison terms for nonviolent speech such as defamation and insulting the monarchy and public institutions. While government officials have proposed amending the laws to eliminate prison terms for speech offenses, no such amendments have been adopted since the new constitution took effect. The government continues to enforce these repressive articles.
In one example, Mouad Belghouat, a rapper known as “Al-Haqed”, completed a one-year prison sentence  on March 29 for composing a song deemed insulting to the police.
Hollande should voice support for amending laws that would eliminate criminal penalties for nonviolent speech, Human Rights Watch said. He should also express concern about other measures taken recently that undermine media freedom, such as the government’s withdrawal of accreditation  from the Moroccan journalist Omar Brouksy of Agence France-Presse because of objections to his reporting.
Morocco has made headway in reducing the number of girls under 15 illegally employed as domestic workers, but ineffective enforcement of the law has left underage domestic workers vulnerable to exploitation and abuse  by their employers, Human Rights Watch said. The national labor laws exclude domestic workers, so the government in 2006 began preparing a domestic worker law, which would require signed contracts, weekly rest days and other protections – but it has yet to be put to a vote in parliament.
Meanwhile, the Moroccan media continue to report cases of underage domestic workers who suffer injury or sometimes death as a result of abusive employers. News media reported that a 14-year-old domestic worker, “Fatima,” died on March 24 from burns allegedly inflicted on her by the couple in Agadir who employed her.
Hollande should urge the Moroccan government to build upon efforts to end the use of underage domestic workers, and enact and enforce Morocco’s first law to protect domestic workers, Human Rights Watch said.
“President Hollande should make clear that the strong human rights language of the 2011 constitution needs concrete action if Moroccans are actually going to enjoy greater rights,” Whitson said.