Human Rights Watch today condemned the bans imposed by Moroccan authorities on a march and meeting that were to have been held yesterday in Rabat in support of human rights activists in Tunisia.

Forbidding this type of human rights activity is itself a clear-cut violation of freedom of assembly," said Hanny Megally, executive director of Human Rights Watch’s Middle East and North Africa Division. "Human rights defenders who believed they would be free in Morocco to express solidarity with colleagues in Tunisia must surely be disappointed by this reminder that they are not so free after all." Mr. Megally added that Human Rights Watch sought an explanation of the ban from the Ministry of Human Rights in Rabat but have received none so far.

The organizers of the event planned a march from Morocco’s Parliament building to the Tunisian Embassy, where they planned to give the ambassador a letter addressed to Tunisian President Zine Abidine Ben Ali regarding human rights conditions in that country and urging the release of Mr. Ksila. The organizers had also planned to hold a conference Monday on human rights in Tunisia at the office of the Moroccan Bar Association. Human rights activists had arrived from Paris, Cairo, and elsewhere to participate.

A representative of the independent Moroccan Association for Human Rights (Association Marocaine des droits de l’Homme, AMDH), one of the sponsoring organizations, said that organizers had applied for permission to hold the march. He said they had not sought permission for the meeting at the bar association offices because private gatherings in private quarters required no prior authorization.

But before the day’s events, organizers received a letter from authorities informing them that the march and meeting could not take place as planned due to unspecified security considerations. A large contingent of police surrounded the downtown offices of the bar association on Monday and prevented access to it.

The meeting was relocated to an AMDH office in Rabat, where it was allowed to take place while police were stationed outside. An AMDH representative pointed out, however, that the association’s office was smaller than the bar association office and that some persons stayed away because of the police action that day.

Organizers of the events included the Cairo-based Arab Program for Human Rights Activists, the Paris-based Arab Human Rights Committee, the AMDH and the Ligue Marocaine de Défense des Droits de l’Homme.

Khemais Ksila, a vice-president of the independent Tunisian League for Human Rights, is serving a three-year sentence in a Tunis prison for charges that include incitement and defamation of the public order. The charges stem solely from a public statement Mr. Ksila issued on September 29, 1997 criticizing President Ben Ali for human rights abuses and heavy repression. He has been imprisoned since that day. Regional and international human rights organizations have condemned his imprisonment as a violation of his right to free expression and urged his release.