(Rabat) - Morocco should halt the widespread bureaucratic maneuvers that undermine freedom of association, including withholding registration from civic groups in violation of its own laws, Human Rights Watch said in a report issued today.

The 45-page report, "Freedom to Create Associations: A Declarative Regime in Name Only," says that local representatives of the Interior Ministry often refuse to accept registration papers when a group's objectives or membership displeases the authorities.

Moroccan law permits new associations to come into being simply by registering with local authorities, rather than by requiring prior authorization. The law obliges officials to accept the registration papers.

"When it comes to freedom of association, as with many other human rights issues, Morocco enacts progressive legislation but then the administration does what it pleases," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch.

The report includes more than 10 case studies of associations from which the government has withheld the "receipt" acknowledging registration, impeding their activities. These include groups fighting corruption and others promoting the rights of unemployed university graduates, the Amazigh (Berber) population, Sahrawis, and sub-Saharan migrants. The groups are based in cities around the country and in the Moroccan-ruled Western Sahara.

The administration has also undercut many charitable and educational groups apparently because their leadership includes members of Justice and Spirituality, one of Morocco's most active Islamist movements.

Associations that are not considered to be registered properly may not collect dues or receive grants. They also encounter obstacles to organizing demonstrations, hiring public halls, and opening bank accounts. Members have in some instances been prosecuted for membership in an "unrecognized association," even though that offense does not exist in Moroccan law. While many associations that lack proof of registration continue to function, their uncertain legal status keeps them off-balance, limits their activities, and scares off some current and potential members.

"The frequency with which local officials around the country withhold these registration receipts shows that officials at the national level are condoning this practice," Whitson said. "They need to exercise political will at a national level and require the local officials to obey the law."

In theory, the associations have legal remedies when local officials do not process their documents. They can send in their paperwork via registered mail; hire a bailiff to witness their good-faith efforts to register; or bring a case in an administrative court. But these remedies have produced unsatisfactory results, Human Rights Watch found.

Human Rights Watch also criticized the excessively broad grounds that the law gives authorities to oppose formation of a new association or to seek the dissolution of an existing one through the courts. The law states that no association may harbor objectives or aims that are deemed "contrary to good morals," "undermine" Islam, the monarchy, or the country's "territorial integrity," or "call for discrimination."

These restrictions far exceed the limits that international human rights treaties permit on freedom of association and expression, and provide the authorities with a basis in domestic law for dissolving organizations whose political agenda displeases them.

"In practice, Moroccan authorities rarely use the blunt instrument of banning an association," Whitson said. "They prefer to target specific associations with ‘repression light' - bureaucratic ploys that destabilize associations, weaken civil society, and undermine the rule of law."

The Human Rights Watch report urges the Moroccan government to:

  • Require local officials to fulfill their obligations under Moroccan law pertaining to registering associations, and hold the officials accountable if they do not.
  • Revise the associations law to narrow the criteria by which an association can be banned. Wording that allows officials to turn down groups that "harm" Islam, the monarchical regime, or Morocco's "territorial integrity," or that "call" for discrimination, is excessively broad and invites politically motivated repression.
  • Revise the law on associations to require authorities to state a reason clearly when they oppose legal recognition for an association.
  • Enforce rulings by administrative tribunals in favor of associations that have encountered arbitrary administrative obstacles to filing their declaration.
  • Halt prosecutions for "membership in an unrecognized association," an offense that has no clear legal basis.
  • Issue on a regular basis a list of associations whose documents government officials have refused to accept or for which national and local government officials have refused to issue a receipt, or whose legal constitution the government has contested, with the reasons for doing so.

"Morocco boasts thousands of duly recognized nongovernmental organizations," Whitson said. "But the real test of an enlightened government is how it treats the more controversial groups."