(New York) - Moroccan authorities should drop all proceedings against a group arrested for planning a forest picnic as a low-key protest against a law barring Muslims from eating publicly during Ramadan's fasting hours, Human Rights Watch said today.

The group, which argues for religious freedom and came together via Facebook, announced the protest for September 13, 2009 in woods near the city of Mohammedia, between Rabat and Casablanca. It chose the location to avoid offending fasting Muslims by eating in their midst.

"Certainly, governments can step in when public morals are really threatened," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. "But not when doing so tramples on people's fundamental rights."

As would-be participants arrived by train for the picnic, a large contingent of police intercepted, searched, and took the names of a number of them, then forced them back onto trains out of Mohammedia.

On September 14, the state news agency, Maghreb Arabe Presse (MAP), announced that local authorities and security services had thwarted the event and that the organizers would face prosecution. On September 15, police began making arrests. No formal charges against any of the participants have yet been announced; however, the MAP report said that six Moroccan promoters of the event would be prosecuted.

Morocco's penal code states, in article 222 that, "A person commonly known to be Muslim who violates the fast in a public place during Ramadan, without having one of the justifications allowed by Islam, shall be punished by one to six months of prison" and a fine.

Article 222 exempts Morocco's non-Muslim minorities - such as Jews and non-Muslim foreigners - from the ban on public eating during Ramadan. However, its application to persons "commonly known to be Muslim" appears to deny to those the state considers Muslims the right to declare themselves to be either non-Muslims or Muslims who choose not to observe the fast.

The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Morocco is a signatory, states in article 18:

"Everyone shall have the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. This right shall include freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice, and freedom, either individually or in community with others and in public or private to manifest his religion or belief. ... Freedom to manifest one's religion or belief may be subject only to such limitations as are prescribed by law and are necessary to protect ... public morals."

The covenant also protects freedom of association and of opinion, with governments' ability to put restrictions on these rights also similarly strictly limited.

The group organizing the event is the Alternative Movement for Individual Freedoms (Mouvement alternatif pour les libertés individuelles, MALI). Despite the choice of a discreet location for their fast-breaking protest and the fact that the authorities prevented it from occurring, the police arrested at least four persons who had come to Mohammedia for the event. They arrested students Abderrahim Mouktafi and Ghassan Bouyaghrouni in their hometowns of Casablanca and Kenitra, respectively, on September 15. Police in Marrakesh arrested another would-be participant, Nizar Benzimate, a journalism student, on September 17 and drove him back to the station in Mohammedia, where they held him overnight before releasing him.

Police on September 15 also arrested Aziz el-Yaakoubi, an accredited journalist from Casablanca. Ibtissame Lachgar, a psychologist, reported to the police in Mohammedia on September 17 after learning that the police had visited her Rabat home in her absence two days earlier. The police dismissed Lachgar, but informed her she may be summoned at a later date.

Police on September 15 came to the Casablanca home of another would-be participant, Zeineb el-Rhazoui, a journalist. El-Rhazoui, who was not home at the time, was reportedly alarmed, not only because of the police visit, but also because the initial report by the state news agency stated that six Moroccans had organized the picnic but named only her. She has also received death threats on her Facebook page. Her whereabouts are unknown at this time.

El-Yaakoubi, the journalist, said that the Mohammedia police held Mouktafi, Bouyaghrouni, and himself all day on September 15, releasing them at 3 a.m. on September 16 and ordering them to report again at 10 a.m. They reported at 10 a.m. and were held until midnight, then ordered to report back on September 17. On that day, they again remained in custody from 10 a.m. until midnight, and again on September 18 from 10 a.m. until 4 p.m.

Meanwhile, the Moroccan press has published articles and opinions mostly condemning the group, including virulent ones that, along with the death threats sent online to various members of the organizing group, raise concern for their personal safety. The state news agency on September 15 published a statement by the Mohammedia provincial council of ‘oulema (Islamist scholars) denouncing this "odious" act by "agitators" that "defies the teachings of God and the Prophet as well as the severe punishment that is its consequence." The front page of the September 16 al-Alam daily, the Arabic-language organ of the Istiqlal party (the party of Morocco's prime minister), includes a front-page editorial about the protesters entitled, "They Are Not from among Us."

The organizing group explained its objectives in a statement issued September 17:

"MALI is not a group that is against Islam. We are for freedom of religion: In calling for the abrogation of a repressive article of the penal code (article 222), we also support Tunisian women who are attacked for wearing the headscarf. ... MALI is not an organization that seeks to provoke any community. Our goal is to draw attention to contradictions between international law, Morocco's constitution, and the country's laws, contradictions that are costly to Morocco's citizens and that undermine collective and individual freedoms."

"Moroccan authorities point proudly to the country's multi-confessional heritage," said Whitson. "But tolerance means also protecting the right of individuals, such as those in MALI, to define and practice their faith as they wish and - as they set out to do - in a manner respectful of others."