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(Rabat) – Morocco’s new government should overhaul repressive domestic laws, curb police violence, and enhance judicial independence if it is to realize the human rights promises contained in the country’s new constitution, Human Rights Watch said today in releasing its World Report 2012. Substantial progress in these areas will prove the sincerity of the reforms announced by King Mohammed VI in response to street protests in Morocco and major upheavals elsewhere in the region in 2011.

During 2011, the government sent people to prison for political reasons, using repressive laws and patently unfair trials. Authorities curbed the right of Moroccans to assemble in the streets, tolerating in some cases the pro-reform protests that began on February 20 but in other cases violently dispersing demonstrators. In Western Sahara, security forces allowed no public rallies organized by advocates of self-determination for that region.

“Moroccans overwhelmingly approved a new constitution that boldly affirms their rights as citizens, but they are still waiting to see what, if anything, these constitutional principles will mean in practice,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “As a start, the government should repeal the penal and press code provisions that allow the government to seek prison terms for nonviolent speech, including criticism of the monarchy, Islam, or Morocco’s claim to Western Sahara.”

In the 676-page World Report 2012, Human Rights Watch assessed progress on human rights during the past year in more than 90 countries, including the popular uprisings in the Arab world. Given the violent forces resisting the “Arab Spring,” the international community has an important role to play in assisting the birth of rights-respecting democracies in the region, Human Rights Watch said in the report.

Among those convicted during 2011 is the well known journalist Rachid Nini, serving a one-year term under penal code provisions that punish “gravely offending” public officials, accusing public officials of violating the law without providing proof, and insulting the judiciary. Morocco should abolish or amend such laws if it wants to guarantee the freedom of speech enshrined in its constitution, Human Rights Watch said.

In another politically motivated imprisonment, the courts kept the Sahrawi independence activists Ali Salem Tamek, Brahim Dahane, and Ahmed Naciri in pretrial detention for a year before bringing them to trial and then for an additional six months as the trial met with frequent delays. The court freed the three men provisionally in March 2011 and has scheduled no further sessions in their trial.

“In politically charged cases like all others, judges should base their verdicts on evidence, investigate claims of improperly obtained confessions, and impose pretrial detention only as an exception, rather than the rule,” Whitson said. “Rights written into a constitution need to be backed by specific reforms that spell out how suspects’ rights are to be protected, both in their treatment by officials and in the prosecution of their cases.”

Hundreds of suspected Islamist extremists arrested both in the aftermath of the Casablanca bombings in 2003 and in the years since then remain in prison. Many of them were convicted in unfair trials after being held in secret detention and subjected to mistreatment and sometimes torture. The new constitution, with its promise of an independent judiciary, should translate into an independent judicial review of their convictions, Human Rights Watch said.

Moroccan authorities should guarantee freedom of assembly – not just occasionally but consistently and regardless of the purpose of the assembly, Human Rights Watch said. The authorities should hold police accountable under the law when they use excessive force to disperse demonstrators.

The constitutional guarantees of freedom of association also require the Moroccan administration to end its routine sleight-of-hand to deprive independent associations of legal recognition, Human Rights Watch said. Officials frequently deny registration by refusing to acknowledge that they have received the organization’s founding papers. Groups denied legal status include many Sahrawi associations that have a pro-independence orientation, Amazigh (Berber) cultural associations, and charitable associations considered close to the Islamist movement Justice and Spirituality, among others.

Moroccan state television provides little room for direct criticism of the government on key issues, although it allows some investigative reporting and political debate, Human Rights Watch said. On March 26, hundreds of journalists who work for state-controlled media held protests to demand, among other things, more editorial independence. State journalists, as well as the viewing public, are watching if the reform process begun by the king in 2011 will translate into a decision to open the airwaves to livelier and more provocative programming and debates on key issues.

On April 8, Morocco lifted certain reservations to the international Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, signaling a commitment to eliminate gender discrimination in marital rights and responsibilities. Morocco should make this pledge a reality in 2012, Human Rights Watch said, by, for example, changing its laws to give Moroccan women the same right to confer nationality on their non-Moroccan spouses that Moroccan men have.

“Moroccan authorities have won admiration abroad for a positive response to street protests and the Arab spring, pledging reforms, winning adoption of a new constitution, and holding early elections,” Whitson said. “But 2012 will reveal whether these pledges will mean real improvements in human rights – in particular, an end to the unjust imprisonment of peaceful government critics – or whether they were empty promises.”

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