(Rabat) – Moroccan authorities have persisted in their campaign to disrupt a leading independent human rights group despite two court rulings that authorities wrongfully prohibited its gatherings.

Beyond the prohibitions, local officials of the Interior Ministry have prevented several local branches of the group, the Moroccan Association for Human Rights (Association marocaine des droits humains, AMDH) from legally registering their newly elected executive committees. Authorities have also warned the association that they may withdraw its status as an association “of public utility” on the ground that it is functioning as “a political entity opposing state institutions.” On February 15, police forced their way into the group’s national headquarters, detaining and subsequently expelling from the country a French television crew who were inside.

“The Moroccan government’s claim that it is merely requiring the Association for Human Rights to abide by the law and established procedures failed the straight-face test a long time ago,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director. “Morocco’s administrative maneuvers, warnings, and prohibitions against AMDH seem designed to disrupt and undercut it.”

The Rabat Administrative Court ruled on November 21, 2014, that a prohibition on an AMDH-sponsored meeting planned for a public venue violated domestic law. It cited the right to freedom of assembly guaranteed by international treaties and Morocco’s constitution. A second ruling by the same court on January 16, 2015, reached a similar conclusion.

Authorities have prohibited scores of meetings organized by the AMDH and other human rights groups since July, when Interior Minister Mohamed Hassad denounced unnamed human rights organizations, accusing them of making “baseless” allegations of security force abuses in a way that could harm Morocco’s image and security.

AMDH staff told Human Rights Watch that authorities have blocked more than 60 of its meetings around the country since July, by ensuring that the venue was unavailable when the AMDH sought to use it. On the rare occasions when authorities provided a written justification, it was to say that the organization had failed to abide by the notification procedures required by law. The blocked gatherings included internal meetings and others open to the public, some to be held in privately owned facilities and others in public facilities.

Authorities have also blocked some gatherings organized by other outspoken human rights and media freedom groups, such as the Moroccan League for the Defense of Human Rights, Freedom Now, Adala (Justice), as well as a conference on media freedom sponsored by the Friedrich Naumann Foundation of Germany. But the government’s actions to block events have primarily targeted the AMDH, which was founded in 1979 and now has 97 local branches around the country.

Morocco’s 1958 Law on Public Assemblies, as amended in 2002, does not require associations to obtain permission from the authorities to hold public meetings, but article 3 of the law requires certain types of associations to notify the authorities of public meetings in advance. Article 3 specifically exempts from such notification “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.”

Abdelkhalek Benzekri, AMDH’s director for international relations, told Human Rights Watch that, as a matter of policy, neither its central bureau in Rabat nor its local chapters notified the authorities in advance of their public or internal events, because the AMDH considered that it qualifies as an association exempted from the requirement under the law’s article 3, an interpretation that the Rabat administrative court has now upheld. While in rare instances, a local chapter did inform authorities of a particular meeting ahead of time, in the majority of cases the AMDH simply agreed on the use of venues with the managers of the venues, he said.

This arrangement generally worked without problems until July, when the authorities began intervening to block most AMDH-organized events planned for venues outside AMDH offices, Benzekri said. Since then AMDH has generally continued not to notify the government in advance for planned events.

Moroccan authorities have denied that they restrict meetings by human rights groups. The government responded to a November 7 Human Rights Watch news release criticizing the prohibitions of human rights gatherings by citing the large number of public gatherings that associations had organized without incident. Authorities act “in utmost respect of the provisions of the law in force, and can ban meetings or gatherings in very exceptional cases where there is non-respect of the notification formalities stipulated by the law,” Mahjoub al-Haiba, the Moroccan government interministerial delegate for human rights, wrote on November 14.

Majdoline Halimi of the Interior Ministry’s Bureau of Public Liberties, told Human Rights Watch in a meeting in Rabat on January 30 that “Morocco has 118,000 associations, 5,150 of which work in the realm of human rights.” During 2014, these associations organized 1,391,448 activities with no obstacles, she said, adding that “only 60 activities were prevented, 52 because the hall was not available, under renovation, or something like that, and 8 because the procedures had not been followed.”

Al-Haiba, in a letter to Human Rights Watch dated January 19, said that the Law on Public Gatherings requires prior notification by the organizers. But his response did not acknowledge that article 3 of the law exempts certain associations from the requirement of prior notification and that recently the Rabat administrative court had twice ruled the AMDH to be such an association.

“Boasting about the thousands of events that Moroccan associations are able to hold cannot obscure the government’s concerted effort to obstruct one of Morocco’s most outspoken and well-established groups, the Moroccan Association for Human Rights,” Whitson said.

Court Cases Upholding Freedom of Assembly
The blocking of AMDH gatherings since 2014 has usually followed one of three patterns, Benzekri told Human Rights Watch. In some instances, venue managers initially agreed to rent out their hall for AMDH use but later rescinded the agreement without any written explanation. In others, operators informed AMDH organizers that they could not use their hall without first obtaining official approval, despite the lack of a legal requirement for such an approval, which was not, in any case, forthcoming. A third pattern involved situations in which AMDH organizers booked a hall but found its doors padlocked shut when they arrived or were met by police, who blocked them from entering.

According to the AMDH, the authorities gave a written notification in only a handful of the more than 60 gatherings cited by the AMDH. In one, the bacha, a local Interior Ministry official, in the city of Imzouren notified the local AMDH section that a debate about democracy and human rights that it sought to organize in the municipal complex on November 1 had been banned for unspecified “security reasons.” In another, the head of the town council of Madiq, near the city of Fnadeq, wrote the president of the local AMDH section that it could not use the Cultural Center on March 28 because it had failed to file a proper notification with local authorities about the activities it planned to conduct when there.

A written prohibition signed by the governor of Rabat-Salé-Zemmour-Za’ir banning a public conference on media and democracy scheduled for September 27-28 at the National Library in Rabat, gave the AMDH the evidence it required to bring suit against the governor in the Rabat Administrative Court of First Instance. The AMDH argued that the governor had wrongfully prohibited the meeting on the grounds that the organizers had not followed the legal procedures stipulated in the Law on Public Assemblies.

In a separate case before the same court, the AMDH brought a claim for breach of contract against the Youth and Sports Ministry because a facility it operated, the Bouhlal Reception Center in Rabat, was padlocked on the day in September that the AMDH had reserved it. The center’s director told the notary hired by the AMDH that it was the municipal authorities who barred the plaintiff from accessing the center, as the court noted.

On November 21, the Rabat Administrative Court ruled at first instance in the case against the governor, rejecting all of the state’s key arguments, which centered on the AMDH’s alleged non-compliance with the notification procedures set out in article 3 of the Law on Public Assemblies.

The court ruled that the AMDH is a “cultural” association and thus was exempt from the requirement to notify authorities in advance of its conference on media and democracy; that this exemption applied regardless of whether the event was held in the AMDH’s offices or elsewhere. The court also ruled that the event in question was consistent with the AMDH’s objectives as laid out in its charter. The court ordered the state to pay the group 100,000 dirhams (US$ 10,500) compensation for “moral harm.”

In the second case against the Youth and Sports Ministry, the Rabat Administrative Court on January 16 affirmed these same three points, concluding that the “AMDH’s missions include increasing familiarity with human rights, and spreading and promoting them. As such, it has the right to organize this activity wherever it wishes, provided it does not infringe public security, which there is no evidence would be threatened or infringed if the training seminar were to be organized at the Bouhlal Reception Center.”

The court ordered the state to pay the AMDH 50,000 dirhams ($5,250) compensation for “moral harm.”

The judgment in the first case refers to the protection of freedom of assembly in the Constitution of Morocco, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (article 20), and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (article 21), to which Morocco is party.

The state has appealed both verdicts to the Administrative Court of Appeals, where both cases are pending.

Other Groups Blocked From Meeting
Authorities have blocked gatherings organized by rights groups other than the AMDH both before and since the administrative court rulings.

For example, according to Adala, an association that works for fair trials and judicial independence, authorities prevented it from holding a seminar, in collaboration with the Heinrich Bőll Foundation of Germany, on December 12 at the Ibis Hotel in Rabat. The seminar was entitled “The Internet between Respect for Privacy and Freedom of Expression in the Digital Era.” When the organizers tried to move the event to the Goethe Institut, a facility associated with the German Embassy, Moroccan authorities successfully pressured the German Embassy not to allow it, citing security reasons, Adala said in a communiqué dated December 15, prompting the organizers to move the event to Adala’s modest office.

Organizers of an invitation-only conference on media freedom in North Africa sponsored by the Friedrich Naumann Foundation of Germany, scheduled for January 24-25 at the Tour Hassan Hotel in Rabat, had to relocate it at the last minute to the AMDH headquarters. One of the organizers, Maâti Monjib, told Human Rights Watch that the hotel – which regularly hosts conferences sponsored by nongovernmental groups – agreed to rent the hall on condition that the organizers received written authorization from the governorate – an approval that the law does not require and that the governorate declined to provide.

Other Government Restrictions against AMDH
Local authorities have engaged in administrative maneuvers to obstruct compliance with the law by 16 AMDH local sections, Benzekri said. Article 5 of the 1958 Law on Associations requires associations to notify the local administration in writing of changes to their executive committee or charter, in return for which they are issued a receipt. Lacking such a receipt can lead to obstacles such as exclusion from events and subsidy programs sponsored by the municipality.

Benzekri told Human Rights Watch that officials in 10 cities had refused to accept the updated documents of local AMDH sections and in 6 others had taken the documents but refused to issue a receipt proving that the sections had complied with this requirement.

The governorate of Rabat-Salé-Zemmour-Za’ir has also threatened to withdraw the AMDH’s status as an association “of public utility,” which would deprive it of certain financial advantages and the right to participate in legal actions as a “civil party,” under article 7 of the Code of Penal Procedure.

In a letter dated December 17, the governor, who is an Interior Ministry official, notified the AMDH that he might withdraw the national association’s public utility status on the grounds that the association was taking positions and acting in a way that strayed from the human rights objectives set forth in its charter, and was operating instead as “a political entity opposed to constitutional state institutions.” The AMDH has made the governor’s letter public.

The governor’s letter accused the group of “spreading baseless accusations” and attacking the “interests of state institutions” and Morocco’s “territorial integrity” – referring to the kingdom’s claim over the Western Sahara – with “the aim of disturbing the public order.” The letter warned the AMDH to stick to the objectives set forth in its charter within three months or risk losing its “public utility” status, pursuant to article 9 of the Law on Associations, as amended in 2005.

The three-month period ended recently, without the AMDH hearing further from the Rabat administration about this matter.

On February 15, police forced their way into the national headquarters of the AMDH in Rabat, showing no warrant and knocking to the ground Rabi’a Bouzidi, a member of the AMDH’s administrative committee, when she refused to hand over the keys to the office, Bouzidi told Human Rights Watch. The police seized two French television journalists who were in the office with their equipment. Authorities confiscated the journalists’ material and expelled them from the country the next day saying that they lacked permission to film in Morocco. The journalists, who were preparing a documentary for France 3 TV, said they had applied to Moroccan authorities for permission far in advance but got no response.