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(Rabat) – Moroccan authorities should stop harassing people campaigning to boycott the November 25, 2011 parliamentary elections, Human Rights Watch said today. Since October 20, police around the country have brought in more than 100 Moroccans to police stations to question them about the distribution of pro-boycott leaflets or other efforts to urge voters not to cast a ballot.

The rate of voter participation will be closely watched because it is seen as a gauge of public enthusiasm for the reforms that King Mohammed VI initiated during 2011. Some groups have urged a voter boycott, saying that the palace-led reforms do not go far enough to enhance the separation of powers and curb royal prerogatives.

“The right to freely choose and campaign for one’s representatives in government includes the right not to vote, and to urge others to do the same,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director of Human Rights Watch. “Harassing people who support a boycott is just as bad as harassing those who support a particular party or candidate, and casts a shadow over the vote.”

In June Mohammed VI unveiled a new constitution, and voters overwhelmingly approved it the following month. The reforms moderately enhanced the power of parliament while preserving considerable prerogatives for the king. On August 15, the interior minister, responding to the king’s request for early parliamentary elections, announced they would be held on November 25, nearly one year ahead of schedule.

Morocco’s 13.6 million registered voters are to choose all 395 members of the Chamber of Representatives, one of two houses of parliament. Under the new constitution, the king is required to name the prime minister from the party that comes in first in the voting. The reforms also give the prime minister the power to dissolve parliament, a power previously reserved for the monarch.

The groups seeking a boycott include the February 20 Youth Movement, an alliance of mostly unaffiliated youth and others that has led the pro-reform street protests this year; Justice and Spirituality (al-Adl wa’l Ihsan), a broad-based Islamist organization that the government claims lacks legal recognition; and three small leftist parties, the Democratic Path (an-Nahj ed-Dimuqrati), the Democratic Socialist Avant-Garde Party (Parti de l’avant-garde démocratique et socialiste, PADS), and the Unified Socialist Party (Parti socialiste unifié, PSU).

In addition to summoning boycott advocates for questioning, authorities have confiscated pro-boycott leaflets published by the Democratic Path and ordered a printer not to print leaflets prepared by the PADS, according to communiqués issued by the Democratic Path on November 14 and the PADS on November 15.

Mohamed Aghnaj, a Casablanca lawyer who belongs to the Justice and Spirituality party, has compiled a list of anti-boycott activists questioned by police in Casablanca, Rabat, Tangiers, Marrakech, Taza, Beni Mellal, Benguerir, Taounate, Larache, Benslimane, Guercif, Settat, Kelaat Sraghna, Khemissat, Meknes, Biougra, Midelt, Khenifra, and other cities and towns. Aghnaj said that to his knowledge none have been charged or reported being physically abused.

In a typical case, plainclothes police went to the home in Salé of Bouchta Moussa’if, 39, on October 26 and told him to accompany them to the station, saying, “Our chief wants to talk to you; you will be back home in 30 minutes.” They allowed Moussa’if, who works at the Center for Nuclear Research, to drive his own car to a Rabat police station.

There, Moussa’if told Human Rights Watch, agents belonging to various security services questioned him over the course of six hours and photographed him twice. The interrogation focused mainly on a pro-boycott document that Justice and Spirituality had distributed at an October 23 demonstration that the February 20 Youth Movement had organized.

The police asked Moussa’if, who is a Justice and Spirituality member, if he had seen the document, if he had distributed it, and if he agreed with its contents. They asked him about his role within Justice and Spirituality. They also took his cellphone and searched the data in it, Moussa’if said. Before releasing Moussa’if, the police asked him to sign a statement summarizing what he told them, which he refused to do.

Hicham Chouladi, a 35-year-old middle school (collège) teacher living in Casablanca, told Human Rights Watch:

On October 23 plainclothes policemen came to my place around three in the afternoon. They did not give their names. They said they were from police and that they had orders to bring me to the station “just for five minutes.” [At the police station] they questioned me for about four hours. First, they showed me a leaflet that had been printed from a website and asked if I recognized it. The first questions were technical: Who printed the leaflets? Who is on the February 20 committee? How do you distribute the leaflets? I replied that I can only speak for myself, not for the February 20 movement.

Two officers asked most of the questions; four others in the room occasionally chimed in. When I asked why they wanted me, they said they had photos and videos of me distributing leaflets. When I asked to see them, they refused. “We want to make this quick,” they said. They did not mistreat me. They allowed me to answer calls on my cell phone. I refused to sign the statement [summarizing the interrogation] until I spoke with a lawyer. They let me call him. The lawyer told me to read the statement and if it was accurate I should sign. I read it, it was accurate, so I signed.

I personally know three others who were brought from their homes, like me. No one I know who was brought in was shown a warrant. I know seven February 20 movement activists who refused to go without a warrant.

The police did not inform any of the pro-boycott activists they questioned that they were being investigated for possible violations of a specific law, as far as Human Rights Watch has been able to determine. Following media reports that pro-boycott campaigners were being arrested, the state news agency Maghreb Arab Presse (MAP) denied on November 21 that the police had arrested anyone for pro-boycott campaigning.

“Summoning scores of boycott activists in cities around the country to police stations for questioning amounts to a state policy of harassment – whether or not they are formally arrested and eventually charged,” Whitson said.

Organic Law 27.11 Governing the Chamber of Representatives, published in the Official Gazette on October 17, 2011, states in article 51, “Anyone who attempts, through the use of false information, false rumors, or any other fraudulent means, to change the vote of voters, or to push one or more voters to refrain from voting, shall be punished by one month to one year in prison and a fine of 10,000 to 50,000 dirhams [US$1,200-6,000].”

Whether invoked or not, article 51 of Law 27.11 violates the right of Moroccans to freedom of expression by imposing sanctions for employing “false information” while campaigning, be it for or against a candidate or a boycott. While a law that criminalizes the use of violence or threats to influence voters can be written in a way that is compatible with the right to freedom of expression, article 51 of Law 27.11 is incompatible because it penalizes in a vague and open-ended way the use of information deemed to be “false,” without tying the definition of this phrase to any form of coercion.

The new constitution contains strong affirmations of human rights, including freedom of expression. However, the persistence of laws that curb speech, including articles of the press and penal code and article 51 of Law 27.11 concerning efforts to influence voters, underscores the need to harmonize existing and future legislation with the human rights principles enshrined in the constitution, Human Rights Watch said.

Morocco’s parliamentary elections have gotten progressively cleaner over the past two decades, observers say. However, in the last election, held in September 2007, the official voter participation rate of only 37 percent suggested that a large part of the electorate saw little at stake for them in the composition of the legislature.

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