(New York) - Arrests without warrants, followed by alleged torture at national police headquarters, raise questions about how Moroccan authorities are handling a case involving seven prominent members of the country's leading Islamist association, Human Rights Watch said today. The men have been in pretrial detention since June 28.
The seven members of Justice and Spirituality (al-Adl wa'l-Ihsan), a nationwide association whose legality authorities contest, were arrested in a dawn raid at their homes in the city of Fez. The accusation against them stems from a complaint filed on June 21 by a former member of the group that they had abducted and tortured him a month earlier, accusing him of having infiltrated the group to spy for the government.
"There is a proper way to investigate a citizen's complaint against other citizens, respecting the presumption of innocence," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. "A warrantless search-and-arrest operation at dawn suggests that justice is not high on the agenda."
Justice and Spirituality is considered Morocco's largest religion-based movement and the country's strongest opposition force. It seeks to re-Islamize Moroccan society, emphasizing spirituality. Although authorities have not banned it outright, they contest its legality and frequently subject its members to surveillance and harassment.
Rather than summoning the accused men to question them about the complaint, large numbers of armed police in plain clothes descended on the men's homes early on June 28, family members told Human Rights Watch. The police arrested the men, searched their homes, and confiscated books, CDs, flash drives, and computers, without showing any arrest or search warrants, the family members said.
The police then transported the men - who include civil servants and high school and university teachers - 250 kilometers to the national headquarters of the judiciary police in Casablanca. When the men first saw their lawyers on July 1, they told them that during the previous three days, the police separated the men into individual cells - naked, blindfolded, and without food - and beat them and threatened them with rape. The police also allegedly suspended them in the "airplane" position, sodomized some of them with pens, and shocked some of them with electricity.
All seven said that the police had forced them to sign statements that they were not allowed to read. The defendants' July 1 statement is on the Justice and Spirituality website.
On July 1, the men were brought before Judge Abdelhamid el-Ouali at the Fez Court of Appeals, the investigating judge examining the evidence that the men abducted and tortured the former member of Justice and Spirituality. The men deny the accusations. They are also accused of "membership in an unauthorized association," a charge that does not exist in Moroccan law but that prosecutors frequently file against members of Justice and Spirituality and other associations they harass or seek to undermine.
The seven defendants are: Bouali Mnaouer, a pharmacist who holds a doctorate degree; Hicham Sabbah, a civil servant in the Civil Registrar, a local government branch; Azeddine Slimani, a high school teacher; Hicham Didi Houari, a civil servant in the Infrastructure Ministry; Abdellah Bella, a secondary school teacher; Tarik Mahla, a nursing school instructor; and Mohamed Ibn Abdelmaoula Slimani Tlemçani, a professor at a teachers' college (École Normale Supérieure).
At the July 1 hearing, the accused described their alleged torture to the investigating judge, who granted their request for medical examinations. But those examinations did not take place until July 7 for Mohamed Slimani, Azeddine Slimani, and Abdellah Bella, and July 8 for the others, when the injuries might have faded or healed.
It is unusual for a Moroccan investigative judge to approve a defendant's demand for a medical exam in politically sensitive cases. The contents of the medical reports remain confidential during the investigative phase of the case, as do statements apparently signed by the defendants while in police custody.
"The judge's respect for the detainees' right to seek a medical examination for signs of ill-treatment after interrogation is undermined when the men have to wait an entire week to be seen," Whitson said.
It is not yet known whether the doctors' reports will have an impact on this case. Under Moroccan law, statements obtained through torture or coercion are inadmissible as evidence against defendants, and public agents can be prosecuted for acts of torture.
Hind Zarrouk, Bella's wife and the designated coordinator for the families, said that relatives of the detainees observed bruises and other marks suggesting possible torture or ill-treatment during their first visit with the men on July 5 at Aïn Qadous Prison in Fez. The investigative judge, upon completing his investigation, decides whether to refer the case to trial and, if so, on what charges. The judge in this case rejected the men's request to be freed provisionally pending trial. They have appeared before him a number of times, most recently on August 31.
The official press agency Maghreb Arab Press (MAP) reported on June 28 that the police detained the men on the basis of a complaint filed on June 21 with the prosecutor in Fez by Mohamed Elghazi, a Fez lawyer who reportedly was a Justice and Spirituality association member from 2004 until 2010. Elghazi contended that a month earlier, on May 21, the men had abducted him, stripped him naked, forced him to "confess" to having been an informant for the security services inside the association, threatened to ruin him professionally and personally if he did not obey their instructions, and then released him. The defendants continued to threaten him by telephone in the days that followed, according to Elghazi's complaint.
Khalid Naciri, Morocco's communication minister, declared to the press on July 5, "What happened recently in Fez concerns an entity that has no legal status.... All citizens are required to respect and abide by the law, including the government itself, and the legal system serves as the referee among all parties."
A citizen's complaint of abduction and torture merits investigation by the prosecutor's office as evidence of a possibly serious crime. However, there seems to be no legal justification for arrests in dawn raids by large numbers of armed plainclothes police, Human Rights Watch said.
The police entered some of the residences by breaking the door and showed neither search nor arrest warrants, said Zarrouk, Bella's wife. Except when catching someone in the act of committing a crime (flagrant délit), or in "hot pursuit" from a crime scene, Morocco's code of penal procedure requires the police to present a search or arrest warrant, and, with certain narrow exceptions, to search homes only during daytime hours (articles 56 and 62). The authorities have neither explained the timing nor the manner of the arrests, to Human Rights Watch's knowledge.
The families did not learn of the detained men's whereabouts until June 30, in violation of the code of penal procedure's article 67, which requires that the police provide this information promptly.
The prosecutor's office granted the defense lawyers permission to meet their clients on June 30. The lawyers - Mohamed Aghnaj, Mohamed Jalal, Hassan Harouch, Mohamed Nouini, and Mohamed Bouaouin - went to judicial police headquarters that day, but the police denied them access. The lawyers were allowed to see the men only on the following day, when they were presented to the court. By then, the police had allegedly tortured the men and forced them to sign the unread confessions.
Justice and Spirituality is not a political party and does not participate openly in electoral politics. It favors curbing the king's executive powers and contests article 19 of the constitution, which confers on him supreme religious authority in Morocco as "Commander of the Faithful."
Moroccan law penalizes speech or actions deemed "to cause harm" to the institution of the monarchy or the Islamic religion. Authorities have not, to Human Rights Watch's knowledge, accused the movement of terrorist links.
Authorities reject the movement's contention that it obtained legal recognition as an association in 1983 and has maintained it ever since. In addition to restricting and harassing Justice and Spirituality and its members directly, authorities around the country apply pressure on associations that are not formally affiliated with Justice and Spirituality but whose leadership includes members of that movement. Justice and Spirituality states that Moroccan authorities detained 5,733 of its members, including 899 women, between May 24, 2006 and May 9, 2009, mostly on charges such as participating in unauthorized demonstrations and meetings.
"This case seems to fit the pattern of Moroccan authorities harassing Justice and Spirituality," Whitson said. "They need to dispel that impression by conducting an impartial investigation of the defendants' torture complaints and granting them a fair trial."