Human Rights Watch expressed dismay at the conviction and sentencing of thirty-six human rights activists in Morocco on charges of holding an illegal demonstration last December.

The Rabat Court of First Instance handed down the guilty verdict Wednesday and sentenced each defendant to three months in prison and a fine of 3000 dirhams (about U.S. $300). The defendants are expected to appeal and are provisionally at liberty.

The men and women convicted are mostly members of the independent Moroccan Association for Human Rights (Association marocaine des droits de l'Homme, AMDH) and the Forum for Justice and Truth. On December 9, the eve of International Human Rights Day, they had attempted to stage a peaceful sit-in near the gates of parliament in downtown Rabat to demand that those responsible for torture and "disappearances" in Morocco be brought to justice.

Police broke up the gathering just as it got under way, pushing and beating the demonstrators as they hustled them into police wagons and placed them under arrest. Forty-two men and women spent the night in detention and thirty-six were later charged with staging an unauthorized gathering. Three journalists were also arrested and released the same day, after materials were confiscated from them.

"It was distressing enough to see our colleagues getting beaten up and hauled away for a peaceful sit-in that did not obstruct the flow of traffic," said Hanny Megally, executive director of Human Rights Watch's Middle East and North Africa division. "Sentencing them to prison confirms that civil liberties are in a precarious state in Morocco despite the many pledges made by King Mohamed VI."

AMDH contended that it had informed the authorities well in advance of their intention to hold the gathering. They got no response until just before it was to take place, when the Rabat Municipality issued a written order forbidding the event on unspecified grounds of public order. Human Rights Watch considers this ban a violation of the right of peaceful assembly, a right guaranteed by article 21 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which Morocco has ratified.

The December 9 sit-in followed a series of actions by human rights organizations to demand an end to impunity for abuses, particularly the "disappearances," arbitrary imprisonments, and acts of torture committed during the reign of the late King Hassan II. On December 4, the AMDH addressed an open letter to parliament asking for the creation of a commission of inquiry to examine responsibility for past abuses. The letter named several individuals the AMDH considered implicated in grave abuses, including current officials and a member of parliament.