(New York) - Morocco imprisoned government critics and dissidents for their peaceful expression during 2010, despite the image it enjoys as a regional leader on human rights, Human Rights Watch said today in releasing its World Report 2011.
The 649-page World Report, the organization's 21st annual review of human rights practices around the globe, summarizes major human rights issues in more than 90 countries worldwide, including 16 in the Middle East and North Africa. The Morocco/Western Sahara chapter says that several Sahrawi independence activists, human rights defenders, and journalists spent time behind bars in 2010 for peacefully expressing their views. Moroccan courts also convicted defendants in unfair trials, failing to assure their rights to produce evidence and admitting confessions that had been extracted after illegal detention or torture.
"Morocco has a vibrant civil society and enjoys freedom of expression on many subjects, but the reform process is stalled overall, especially when it comes to judicial independence," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch.
Arrests under the country's counterterrorism law were routinely carried out by officers in plainclothes who did not identify themselves. Those arrested were taken to secret places of detention, harshly interrogated, and made to sign confessions they were often prevented from reading. In addition, an appeals court confirmed the guilty verdict for all 35 defendants in the so-called Belliraj case from 2008, including six political figures whose connection to the alleged terrorist plot seemed especially dubious and who are now serving sentences of ten years in prison.
Tensions boiled over in the disputed Western Sahara region on November 8, 2010, when Moroccan security forces invaded a makeshift protest tent camp Sahrawis had erected outside the city of El-Ayoun a month earlier. The protesters killed several unarmed security force members that day as they dismantled the camp. The unrest spread to the city of El-Ayoun, where protesters burned public buildings and security forces arrested scores of suspects. The security forces forced their way into homes and severely beat Sahrawis, especially those they took into custody. More than 150 remain in detention as they await trial for their alleged role in the clashes, 20 of them before a military court.
Police accused of torturing or mistreating suspects in their custody are rarely investigated or held accountable, even when citizens formally complain or defendants register the complaints in court, Human Rights Watch said.
Press freedom also declined during 2010, as Morocco refused to accredit several journalists working with foreign media and suspended Al Jazeera's Morocco operations, claiming it harmed the kingdom's "higher interests." The country also lost three of its boldest independent publications - Al Jarida al-Oula, le Journal Hebdomadaire, and Nichan, casualties of both financial difficulties and political pressure.
In presenting its World Report 2011, Human Rights Watch recognized several individuals who spent time in prison during 2010 for peacefully expressing their views:
Chekib el-Khayari, president of the Association of Human Rights in the Rif, spent the entire year in prison. An appeals court had upheld his three-year sentence for minor currency violations and "insulting state institutions," a charge that stemmed from his denunciations of the laxness of some officials in pursuing narco-trafficking around his native Nador.
"Everyone knows the three taboos that limit free expression in Morocco: the monarchy, Morocco's claim over Western Sahara, and Islam, but Khayari's imprisonment for criticizing the state's handling of the illicit drug trade proves that these are not the only red lines that limit speech in Morocco," Whitson said.
Ali Salem Tamek, Brahim Dahane, and Ahmed Naciri, Sahrawi activists, also spent the entire year in prison. They were finally brought to trial with four other Sahrawis in October after a year in pretrial detention. Their sole offense appeared to be that they openly met in Algeria with the leadership of the Polisario Front, the Sahrawi independence movement, which opposes Moroccan rule over Western Sahara. Their trial on charges of "harming [Morocco's] internal security" was postponed repeatedly but the verdict is expected in the coming days.
Moustapha Selma Mouloud, a Sahrawi, was imprisoned by the Polisario Front in the portion of the Western Sahara that they control after he publicly proclaimed his support for Morocco's proposal for Western Sahara autonomy under Moroccan sovereignty. The Polisario released him, but only after holding him for weeks on accusations of "treason" and "spying."
"The Polisario's imprisonment of Selma shows that, like Morocco, the Polisario also enforce red lines on what you can say about the political future of Western Sahara," Whitson said.