A Sahrawi refugee camp near Tindouf, Algeria, Tindouf

(Rabat) – There were few tangible improvements in human rights in Morocco and Western Sahara during 2014, either in law or in practice, Human Rights Watch said today in its World Report 2015.

In the 656-page world report, its 25th edition, Human Rights Watch reviews human rights practices in more than 90 countries. In his introductory essay, Executive Director Kenneth Roth urges governments to recognize that human rights offer an effective moral guide in turbulent times, and that violating rights can spark or aggravate serious security challenges. The short-term gains of undermining core values of freedom and non-discrimination are rarely worth the long-term price.

Legal reforms were much discussed but rarely enacted, despite the impetus from the rights-friendly constitution adopted in 2011. Courts imprisoned demonstrators and outspoken critics on the basis of repressive speech laws or following unfair trials. Beginning in July, 2014, authorities blocked scores of peaceful private and public meetings organized by various Moroccan human rights associations, reversing a long-standing tolerance of such gatherings. The authorities also refused both new and long-standing human rights groups legal recognition. In Western Sahara, police blocked all public gatherings thought to be organized by opponents of continued Moroccan rule over the disputed territory.

“Three years after Moroccans adopted a bold new constitution, they still await the legal and other reforms needed to put it into effect,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director. “Reforms take time – but they also take political will, which has been lacking.”

In one positive development, Morocco began implementing new policies toward migrants, granting legal residency to those whom the UN Refugee Agency had recognized, and to other migrants who met stringent eligibility criteria.

In another positive step, an amendment to the military justice code that would end military court jurisdiction over civilians was published this month and will soon take effect. Meanwhile, at least two civilian defendants remain on trial before military courts, while other civilians sentenced by military courts in past years, including 22 Sahrawis sentenced in the “Gdeim Izik” protest camps case in 2013, are serving long prison terms.

A draft law introduced in 2006 to regulate domestic labor, which other labor laws do not protect, has yet to be adopted. Penal and press code articles providing prison terms for peaceful speech remain in force and are enforced. The rapper Othmane Atiq, for one, spent three months in prison for “insulting the police” in his songs, among other charges. Activist Wafae Charaf was handed a two-year prison term for filing a torture complaint the court deemed false and slanderous.

Morocco’s judiciary awaits the overhaul urged by King Mohammed in a 2009 speech. Courts convict defendants after unfair trials, on the basis of statements prepared by the police while failing to investigate defendants’ claims that the police extracted the statements by force or otherwise falsified them.

Except in Western Sahara, authorities tolerated frequent demonstrations, including critical ones, though security forces violently dispersed some of them. While broadcast media rarely featured viewpoints hostile to official positions, online media were able to present a broad array of viewpoints.

Morocco cooperated with UN human rights mechanisms, hosting visits by the Working Group on Arbitrary Detentions in December 2013 and by then-High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay in May 2014. In November it acceded to the Optional Protocol of Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (OPCAT), which, if implemented, would strengthen safeguards against torture. And lawmakers closed a loophole in the criminal code that had, in effect, allowed some rapists to escape prosecution if they married their victim.