(Rabat) – Moroccan authorities have blocked more than 15 meetings that the Moroccan Human Rights Association has tried to hold around the country since July 2014. The authorities have also denied venues for events planned by the Moroccan League for Human Rights, Amnesty International, and other organizations.

The interdictions began around the time that Interior Minister Mohamed Hassad, in a speech on combatting terrorism, accused human rights groups of filing baseless allegations of abuses perpetrated by the security forces in a way that could harm Morocco’s image and security.

Morocco should stop arbitrarily impeding the peaceful activities of the country’s independent human rights groups and allow them to operate freely, Human Rights Watch said.

“Morocco was once abuzz with independent human rights activities but authorities have lately been blocking activities right and left that some of the most critical groups have tried to organize,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director.

Hassad refrained from naming any human rights groups in his July 15 speech. However, the problems, especially for the Human Rights Association (Association marocaine des droits humains, AMDH), began at about that time.

Morocco is to host the World Forum on Human Rights, a major gathering of activists from around the globe, from November 27 to 30 in Marrakech. Driss El Yazami, president of Morocco’s National Human Rights Council, said on June 21 that the decision to hold the Forum in Morocco reflects a recognition of the vitality of national institutions and civil society organizations working in the field of human rights.

In the most recent ban, on October 31, organizers of a closed seminar for journalists scheduled for November 1 and 2 were informed by Hotel Ibis in Rabat that they could not use the hall they had reserved, explaining that the authorities had informed the hotel that the event was not authorized, according to Samad Iach of the Ibn Rochd Center for Study and Communication.

Iach told Human Rights Watch that the center had organized non-public seminars like this one for the past several years in Rabat without first notifying the authorities, and without encountering obstacles. The center and its partners in this venture, the Moroccan Association for Investigative Journalism and the Friedrich Naumann Foundation, are all legal entities in Morocco. They were able to transfer the event to the headquarters of the Moroccan League for the Defense of Human Rights.

Since July, the AMDH, an independent group founded in 1979 that has 97 branches around the country, has found that officials have intervened to make sites the group has used for meetings and events unavailable. The group was often barred from using the sites without warning and after the venue operator had agreed that the group could use it, Abdelkhalek Benzekri, the group’s international relations director, told Human Rights Watch. For example, authorities prevented the AMDH section in Ifrane from holding an event on July 22, the Tahla branch from holding a news conference on July 23, and the Azrou branch from holding a conference on July 25. The branch in the city of Séfrou obtained a written agreement from the town council to use a public hall for a forum on economic and social rights on October 18, only to find the hall locked that day.

The organization had no notification or explanation from the authorities, Benzekri said, until late September, when he and two other AMDH officials received a notice signed by the governor (wali) of Rabat-Salé-Zemmour-Za’ir. The notice, dated September 25, banned the AMDH from holding a public conference on “Media and Democracy” on September 27 and 28 at the National Library in Rabat. The notice said the group had not complied with notification procedures set out in article 3 of Morocco’s 1958 Law on Public Assemblies.

The law does not require associations to obtain permission from the authorities before organizing a public meeting, but article 3 requires certain associations to notify the local authorities in advance. The article states, however, “Meetings of associations and groups that are legally recognized whose purposes are specifically cultural, artistic, athletic, as well as the meetings of associations and entities providing first aid or charity, are exempt from providing prior notification ...”

The AMDH has long considered that it qualifies for this exemption, and neither its central bureau in Rabat nor its local chapters have notified the authorities in advance of their public events, Benzekri said, instead simply reaching agreements on the use of venues with their operators.

Since receiving the notice, the group has filed suit against the Rabat governor, saying he exceeded his powers. The Rabat Administrative Court is to hear the case on November 13.

Moroccan authorities have also prevented some closed internal meetings that the AMDH planned to hold in public halls, even though non-public meetings organized by legal associations do not require official authorization or notification under Moroccan law.

The AMDH’s administrative committee was to meet on August 5 at the Bouhlal Center in Rabat, operated by the Youth and Sports Ministry, and had obtained written agreement from the center, but found it padlocked when they arrived for their meeting, a statement from the group said. The authorities also barred the AMDH from holding another internal event at the center, a training session for members from the Kenitra region, on September 26. The group received no written explanation of why it was barred from using the center on either date.

The authorities have also recently restricted other AMDH activities. On September 27, security forces at a checkpoint outside Tangiers prevented a caravan of several vehicles organized by the group in solidarity with the city’s migrant population from entering the city, without explanation. When AMDH branches around the country organized sit-ins on October 15 to protest the pattern of banning their activities, authorities did not interfere except in Western Sahara. There, police prevented demonstrators from reaching the sit-in sites in the cities of El Ayoun and Smara. Authorities have also refused to allow the Smara branch to legally register.

On August 12, a court of first instance in Tangiers sentenced Wafa Charaf, a member of the group, to one year in prison, a fine, and ordered her to pay damages, on charges of “falsely reporting a case of torture” and slandering the police. She had filed a complaint with the Tangiers prosecutor alleging that she was abducted, beaten, and detained for several hours by people she could not identify after she attended a trade union demonstration on April 27. On October 20, an appeals court doubled her prison term. Another AMDH member, Boubker el-Khamlichi, received a one-year suspended prison sentence for “complicity” in the same case. Both also belong to the far-left Democratic Path political party.

Other Moroccan human rights groups have also faced new restrictions since July. Authorities prevented Amnesty International’s Morocco section from holding an annual week-long camp for European and Middle Eastern youths that it had held for each of the previous 16 years without official interference. On September 1, the day before the camp was to begin, organizers arrived at the Moulay Rachid complex in the beach town of Bouznika, which belongs to the Youth and Sports Ministry, to find it locked.

The Amnesty section received no advance notification, nor any official explanation, although the Maghreb Arabe Presse (MAP) state news agency carried a short article on September 2 claiming that the organization had failed to comply with administrative procedures. The organizers “did not notify authorities of their intention to organize this activity, or provide any information on the theme or nature of the activity, or on the nationality of the participants,” the article said.

Salah Abdellaoui, of the Amnesty section, said the organizers of the camp had notified the local authorities by fax, as in previous years, even though they considered the camp a non-public event that required no advance notification. Unable to use the Moulay Rachid complex, the Amnesty section managed to hold a scaled-down version of the camp in its private office.

The authorities prevented the Moroccan League for the Defense of Human Rights from holding an internal meeting at Rabat’s Bouhlal Center on September 27 and 28. Mohamed Zhari, the League’s president, told Human Rights Watch that the Youth and Sports Ministry declined to make the center available but refused to put the decision in writing. Zhari said a ministry official had told him that the ministry had received orders to obtain Interior Ministry approval before allowing human rights organizations to use the venue.

In his speech to parliament on July 15, Minister of Interior Hassad accused “some domestic associations and entities” of using “the banner of defending human rights” to accuse the security services “without any basis ... of perpetrating acts like abductions, torture, and arbitrary detention.” Hassad went on to claim, “This behavior is part of a deliberate campaign ... where they are resorting to the preparation and submission of false reports to drive some of the international organizations to take hostile positions towards Morocco’s interests, including its territorial sovereignty,” a reference to Morocco’s claim to Western Sahara.

The minister of justice and public liberties, Moustapha Ramid, in a meeting with human rights associations on September 24, stressed that there is no prior authorization requirement for holding public meetings, and pledged to work with associations if they encountered such obstacles.

A Human Rights Watch request to the government spokesman, Moustapha Khalfi, for comment received no response. But Khalfi declared to the press on October 2 that: “The public authorities have no systematic policy to prevent the activities of human rights associations. On the contrary, we deal positively with the activities carried out pursuant to the prevailing legislation and procedures…. Between January and September 2014, there have been 4,320 activities carried out by 40 associations.”

“It’s clear that the current crackdown goes well beyond whatever legal interpretation authorities may be using to justify the ban on meetings,” Whitson said. “As Morocco prepares to host human rights activists from around the world, it should end all arbitrary restrictions on gatherings organized by its own human rights activists.”