(Rabat, May 12, 2012) – The sentencing of a rapper on May 11, 2012 to one year in prison for “insulting the police” shows the gap between the strong free-expression language in Morocco’s 2011 constitution and the continuing intolerance for those who criticize state institutions. The sentence was handed down one week before the opening of the international Mawazine music festival in Rabat, which is held under the patronage of King Mohammed VI.
Mouad Belghouat, better known as “al-Haqed” (the sullen one), has been in pretrial custody since March 29 because of his rap song “Kilab ed-Dowla” (Dogs of the State), which denounces police corruption, and a YouTube video set to the song.
“Morocco hosts one famous international music festival after another each spring, but meanwhile it imprisons one of its own singers solely because of lyrics and images that displease the authorities,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch.
The first-instance criminal court of Ain Sbaâ (Casablanca) found Belghouat guilty of “showing contempt” toward “public servants in the exercise of their duty,” with the intention of “undermining their honor,” under article 263 of the penal code, and “showing contempt” toward state institutions, under article 265. The court rejected all motions to free Belghouat pending a definitive verdict. His lawyers said they planned to appeal.
The main evidence was a YouTube video containing a photo-montage of a policeman whose head had been replaced by a donkey’s. Belghouat denied any connection to the video other than that it was set to his song. Belghouat’s lawyers told Human Rights Watch that no evidence was presented in court implicating the defendant in the production or online posting of the video. The court, which also sentenced Belghouat to a fine of 1000 dirhams (US$115) in addition to the prison term, has not yet issued its written judgment, which should explain the reasoning behind the verdict.
The case stems from a complaint filed by the General Directorate of National Security (Direction Générale de la Sûreté Nationale, DGSN), the security agency that includes the judicial police, among other police branches. The complaint refers to the donkey image and another image of three policemen carrying a person, perhaps a protester, by his limbs, as well as the lyrics calling the police corrupt and, according to the complaint, referring to them as dogs.
Belghouat, 24, lives in the low-income Oukacha neighborhood of Casablanca. His rap songs denouncing corruption, injustice, and the gap between royal opulence and poverty in Morocco have won him attention as a voice of the pro-reform “February 20 youth movement,” which began in Morocco shortly after the start of protests in other Arab countries in early 2011. Police have generally allowed the movement to hold protest rallies in cities around the country, but have on several occasions intervened violently to disperse them.
During the trial session on May 7, attended by Human Rights Watch, police arrested Maria Karim, one of Belghouat’s most ardent supporters, after she allegedly called a lawyer for the police “pathetic.” She was detained overnight and released, but faces trial on June 7 for “insulting” the lawyer.
Belghouat attracted wide notice when police arrested him in an earlier case in September 2011 and charged him with beating a pro-government protester in a street altercation. His trial in Casablanca attracted crowds of supporters, who claimed that the case was a set-up. The defense team contended that there were many inconsistencies in the account provided by Belghouat’s alleged victim. In January, the court convicted Belghouat of the assault, sentenced him to the four months he had already served in pretrial detention, and released him.
On July 1, 2011, Moroccans voted in a referendum to approve a constitution proposed by King Mohammed VI that affirms freedom of expression. Article 25 states: “Freedom of thought, opinion and expression in all its forms are guaranteed. Freedom to create, publish, and display literary and artistic materials and scientific and technical research are guaranteed.” However, Morocco has yet to revise the repressive articles of the press and penal code that seem contrary to the new constitution, and the courts continue to apply these articles to punish peaceful speech.
Following the Mawazine Festival in Rabat, the city of Fez hosts an annual festival of sacred music in early June and Essaouira hosts a festival of gnawa and world music later that month. The Mawazine Festival lists on its program international stars such as Mariah Carey, Marwan Kfoury, Lenny Kravitz, Nancy Ajram, Scorpions, Fadel Shaker, Gloria Gaynor, Cheb Khaled, and Jimmy Cliff; and Moroccan stars such as Abdelmoughit, Karima Skalli, Outlandish, and Fnaire, a rap group.