(Tunis) – Moroccan authorities should drop charges against a historian and other activists accused of using foreign funding to undermine internal security.
The criminal case filed against Maâti Monjib, a Mohammed V University (Rabat) professor, and four others involved in nongovernmental groups with him carries a prison term of up to five years. Monjib has published numerous articles critical of the government and has participated in efforts to promote dialogue between Morocco’s Islamists and leftists to build an opposition front. The government has previously refused to grant legal recognition to a group he co-founded, prohibited meetings organized by a research center he headed, and imprisoned a colleague on adultery charges on the basis of dubious evidence.
“Taking money to ‘undermine internal security’ is a patently political charge that culminates a two-year pattern of harassment against Maâti Monjib and his fellow activists,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director. “It is one more indication that in Morocco, the space for critical thinking and expression is shrinking.”
Monjib and the other men were notified, on October 29 and 30, 2015,that they are to go on trial on November 19. The state security charge they face, under penal code article 206, states: “A person is guilty of harming internal state security … if he, directly or indirectly, receives [support from abroad intended, or used, to finance] an activity or propaganda capable of harming the integrity, sovereignty or independence of the kingdom, or shaking the loyalty that citizens owe to the state and the institutions of the Moroccan people.”
Morocco should abolish or revise penal code article 206 to bring it into conformity with Morocco’s obligation to protect the rights to freedom of association and expression under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, ratified by Morocco in 1979, Human Rights Watch said. Penalizing a broadly defined range of peaceful expression and activities that benefit from foreign funding interferes with the right of Moroccans to seek such funding, which is integral to the exercise of freedom of association, Human Rights Watch said.
The United Nations special rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association, Maina Kiai, wrote in a 2013 report: “The ability to seek, secure and use resources is essential to the existence and effective operations of any association, no matter how small. The right to freedom of association not only includes the ability of individuals or legal entities to form and join an association but also to seek, receive and use resources – human, material and financial – from domestic, foreign, and international sources.”
In May, tax auditors visited Monjib to examine the books of the Rabat-based Ibn Rochd Center for Research and Information, which he founded but then decided to close at the end of 2014, citing authorities’ efforts to prevent its activities. On August 31, 2015, Monjib learned that the police were investigating him when they detained him briefly for questioning at Casablanca’s Mohammed V Airport, as he returned from an overseas trip.
The National Brigade of the Judicial Police questioned Monjib on September 14, and again on October 19, about the Ibn Rochd Center and accused him of “undermining the credibility of state institutions,” Monjib said. Airport authorities also stopped him from traveling to Barcelona on September 16, and to Norway on October 7.
Monjib started a hunger strike on October 6, to protest the travel ban and harassment. Authorities did not formally notify Monjib of the charges or the travel ban, but Moroccan media cited officials explaining that judicial authorities imposed the travel ban based on an investigation into alleged “financial irregularities” at the Ibn Rochd Center.
Authorities also questioned Samad Ayyach, another of the men charged, on August 15, about his work at the Ibn Rochd Center and the Moroccan Association for Investigative Journalism (Association marocaine de journalisme d’investigation, AMJI), another group Monjib headed. Ayyach was turned back at Mohammed V Airport on August 25, as he tried to fly to Tunis.
On October 29, the Rabat Administrative Court rejected a petition from Monjib to declare the travel ban illegal, and said it would be premature for the court to rule on the matter until the restriction had been in effect for three months. The same day, however, the office of the prosecutor notified Monjib’s attorney that it was lifting the travel ban and that Monjib would face trial November 19. Monjib then ended his hunger strike.
Monjib was also charged with defrauding others under article 540, which carries a prison term of up to five years.
Monjib’s other co-defendants are Hicham Mansouri, a program officer at AMJI; Hicham Khreibchi, known as Hicham Al-Miraat; and Mohamed Essaber. Al-Miraat is the former director of the Association for Digital Rights (Association des droits numériques, ADN); Essaber is president of the Moroccan Association for the Education of Youth (Association marocaine pour l’éducation de la jeunesse, AMEJ). Mansouri is already serving a 10-month sentence for alleged “complicity in adultery.”
Ayyach, Mansouri, and Al-Miraat all said that the police had questioned them about a program for journalists, citizens, and bloggers organized by the Dutch nongovernmental group Free Press Unlimited (FPU). In June, police interrupted a four-day training session that Free Press Unlimited had organized with AMEJ in Marrakesh, confiscating smartphones that the organizers had distributed to participants. The group said the training session was to teach professional skills related to photography, audio and video storytelling, and security. The police also interrogated Essaber about the AMEJ involvement in the training.
In 2013, Monjib co-founded and became president of Freedom Now, a media freedom group for which the authorities have refused legal recognition. The co-founders included Ali Anouzla and Rida Benotmane. Authorities jailed Anouzla, a leading independent journalist, for 38 days in 2013, on accusations of justifying and materially supporting terrorism because of an article published about Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb on his now-defunct website, Lakome.com. Benotmane served four years in prison for online postings that the court ruled to constitute “offenses toward the person of the king” and “praise of terrorism.”
Police blocked a public meeting Freedom Now organized at the headquarters of the Rabat Bar Association in July 2014, forcing the group to move the event.
“Maâti Monjib may be the common factor that links a series of repressive measures taken over the last two years,” Whitson said. “But this is not only about one activist – it’s about Morocco’s growing intolerance of critics and outspoken associations, and of the legitimate foreign funding that supports some of them.”