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(Rabat) - Moroccan authorities allowed peaceful, pro-reform demonstrations to take place in cities across the country on March 20, 2011, Human Rights Watch said today. The police restraint contrasted with their violent dispersal of demonstrators the previous Sunday in Casablanca.

Since Moroccans joined the protest movement sweeping the Arab world with marches in several Moroccan cities on February 20, security forces have alternated between tolerating public rallies and forcibly dispersing them. The decision on whether to allow or repress the demonstrators seems to rest more with political decisions by authorities than with the behavior of the demonstrators, Human Rights Watch said.

"On March 20, Moroccan authorities respected the right of citizens to assemble and protest peacefully," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. "The stance toward peaceful protesters we saw on that day should be the rule."

King Mohammed VI addressed the country on March 9, two weeks after Moroccans took to the streets demanding political reforms that include checks on the monarch's extensive powers. Without once mentioning the protest movement, the king announced that a committee would draft constitutional reforms. He said the changes would give the prime minister greater power, decentralize power toward the regions, recognize the diverse components of Moroccan identity, including Amazighité (Berber identity), and implement the recommendations made in 2006 by the Equity and Reconciliation Commission, Morocco's truth commission.

Many protest participants said their demonstrations would continue because the king's reform project did not include a greater devolution of the monarch's power.

In Rabat on March 20, a few thousand people marched from Bab al-Had Square to Parliament on Mohammed V Avenue, where they chanted pro-reform slogans. Sources told Human Rights Watch that hundreds of people in Tangiers, Fez, Al-Hoceima, Guelmime, Beni Mellal, Kelaat Sraghna, Tetouan, and Agadir also demonstrated peacefully, following a call by the informal youth movement calling itself "the February 20 Movement" to demand reforms beyond those the king had embraced in his speech.

In downtown Casablanca, Morocco's largest city, thousands gathered at Victory Plaza, or Sahat an-Nasr, and then marched along Homman Fatouaki, Omar Lehrizi and Hassan II avenues  before dispersing without any violence. Maghreb Arab Presse, the state news agency, estimated the crowd at 7,000, but organizers said the number was far greater.

The peaceful conclusion of the March 20 demonstration in Casablanca contrasted with what happened there on the morning of March 13, when hundreds of youths assembled in front of the main police station at United Nations Square to demand "real reforms," an apparent rebuke of those that the king had announced four days earlier.

The police, who that morning had been deployed throughout the city in large numbers, struck the protesters with batons to disperse them. Some of the protesters retreated to the nearby headquarters of the Unified Socialist Party (PSU), a small, legal opposition party. PSU members, who were meeting that day, came out into the streets. The police beat some of them as well, including a senior party figure, Mohamed Sassi. A dissident comic, Ahmed Snoussi, was also among those beaten that morning.

 The police in Casablanca injured many protesters and arrested more than 100 over the course of the day; all were released later that day. The February 20 Movement said it received medical certificates from more than 20 injured protesters, some with broken arms, others with head wounds. Among those beaten by the police were members of the Islamist ‘Adl wa'l Ihsan (Justice and Spirituality) movement, who joined the rally at United Nations Square and resisted the police's violent efforts to disperse it.

The pro-reform street protests in Morocco began largely peacefully when thousands demonstrated in towns and cities on February 20, largely without police interference. But by the next day, the police began violently breaking up smaller protests.

On February 21, police in Rabat clubbed demonstrators in Bab el-Had square. Khadija Ryadi, the president of the Moroccan Association for Human Rights (Association Marocaine des Droits Humains, AMDH) was among those who went to the hospital after being beaten.

In the southern city of Agadir, police arrested at least four students on February 22 as they distributed a bulletin announcing a sit-in at al-Amal plaza downtown. The police questioned and photographed them before freeing them with a warning that they would be arrested if they proceeded with the sit-in, Mohamed Nafaa, a member of the AMDH's Inezgane-Aït Melloul branch, told Human Rights Watch. On February 23, the police prevented protesters from staging the sit-in in Agadir and detained some of them.

Also on February 23, police in Rabat forcibly dispersed a small demonstration called by the Moroccan Democratic Network for Support of the People in front of the Libyan Cultural Center. The police beat would-be participants, including Abdelkhaleq Benzekri, Abdelillah Benabdeslam, Montassir Idrissi, and Taoufik Moussa'if. Moussa'if, a human rights lawyer who is active in the judicial reform association Adala, said that as protesters arrived, an official ordered them to disperse. When they refused, the official ordered the use of force. Moussa'if told Human Rights Watch that the police beat him on the head, shoulders, and feet. Benabdeslam, of the AMDH, told Human Rights Watch that baton-wielding police clubbed the protesters hard on various parts of their bodies.

"It is great that Moroccans were free to march peacefully for reform on March 20," Whitson said. "But as long as their efforts sometimes meet with a green light, sometimes with police truncheons, the right of peaceful assembly in Morocco will remain a gift that authorities bestow or revoke as they please, rather than the fundamental right it remains."

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