(Tunis) – Moroccan police attacked and beat peaceful teacher-trainee protesters on January 7, 2016, causing dozens of injuries. Some of the protesters had serious head injuries that required emergency medical attention.
Teacher trainees took to the streets in six cities – Casablanca, Marrakesh, Inezgane, Tangiers, Fez, and Oujda – after a call by the National Coordination of Teacher Trainees at Regional Centers for Education and Training in Morocco, for a nationwide protest against two new decrees reducing their stipends and job security. In Inezgane, police attacked peaceful demonstrators with rubber batons and wooden sticks and in some cases threw stones at them, witnesses told Human Rights Watch.
“Clubbing and tossing stones at peaceful demonstrators would fall well outside the realm of lawful means of dispersing a peaceful demonstration,” said Eric Goldstein, deputy Middle East and North Africa director. “The Moroccan authorities should make sure the police and security forces don’t use unnecessary violence against demonstrators and to hold accountable anyone who does.”
The protests have continued in Inezgane and other cities, but with no reports of serious violence since January 7.
Human Rights Watch spoke by phone on January 11 with two demonstrators injured in Inezgane, a mid-sized city in southwest Morocco where the police response was particularly violent, and reviewed video and photo evidence and medical records of those injured. The witnesses said that both uniformed and plainclothes police started to disperse several hundred protesters assembled in front of the Inezgane Regional Center for Education and Training and without any warning, kicked the protesters and beat them with rubber batons, injuring dozens.
On January 9, Abdellatif Hammouchi, director of National Security, announced an investigation into the January 7 disturbances. In a statement the same day, the Interior Ministry downplayed the police violence. While acknowledging that protesters were “lightly injured people and some people fainted,” the ministry defended its action by maintaining that protests had been held “without prior approval by the government.”
Organizers of the nationwide movement told Human Rights Watch they did not formally notify the authorities of the protests as they were certain the government would not grant approval. Under Moroccan law, organizers of demonstrations on public streets are required to notify local administrative authorities at least three days in advance and must obtain a stamped receipt of acknowledgement from the authorities.
While international norms permit the police to disperse demonstrators if they obstruct traffic or otherwise threaten public order, and if the demonstrators refuse orders to disperse, the police must use the minimum force necessary to achieve a legitimate objective, Human Rights Watch said. The evidence collected suggests the force police used in Inezgane was vastly excessive.
The witnesses in Inezgane said that several hundred protesters, mostly teacher trainees, but also family members and union activists, gathered on the morning of January 7, in front of the city’s Regional Center for Education and Training. One of the decrees they were protesting reduces the monthly stipend for the trainees from MAD$2.454 to MAD$1.200 (from US$245 to US$120), while the other weakens assurances of employment with the Ministry of National Education for trainees who complete the training.
The witnesses said that men in civilian clothes followed them as they made their way to the center, shouting insults and trying to dissuade them from joining the protest. Once all protesters had assembled in front of the center, in what normally serves as a parking lot but was empty that day, police closed off all streets leading to the site.
They said that at around 10:30 or 11 a.m., protesters started chanting slogans and some started to jump up and down in unison. When some approached the police cordon, the police started beating the protesters. They said the confrontation lasted about an hour and a half.
According to the Moroccan Association for Human Rights, the police crackdown injured 100 people in Inezgane, 20 in Marrakesh, eight in Tangiers and 40 in Casablanca, including some who were seriously injured.
Elkhamar Essabiri, 26, a philosophy teacher trainee, described the scene in a January 11 interview:
The police intervention came as a surprise since there was no prior warning. Some of us protesters at the forefront sat down on the ground while others ran inside the Inezgane training center, but the beatings by police continued indiscriminately and violently.
There was a trainee, a woman, who was severely beaten on the head, shoulder and on her chest with blood visible on her head. I tried to carry her away, but then I got hit on my shoulder and couldn’t carry her. Then five policemen surrounded me and beat me with sticks, and kicked me on my body, shoulders and feet. One of them kicked me in the testicles. I can hardly walk. I was taken to Inezgane hospital by ambulance and lost my vision for a few hours. I was transferred to the emergency room of Hassan II hospital in Agadir, but after one night at the hospital, they forced us to leave because they received instructions from the police.
Rachid, 26, another teacher trainee who asked to be identified only by his first name, said that the police beat him until he lost consciousness. He also said despite being on the front lines of the protest, he did not hear the security officials issue any warning before starting to violently disperse the crowd:
The police had us surrounded on all sides when they started beating us indiscriminately. After that I cannot remember details of what happened to me. All I can remember is while trying to get back into the training center I lost consciousness.
Eventually an ambulance transferred me to a hospital, but only after they had transported the serious cases. At the Inezgane Hospital, I found out that I had suffered beatings on the head and my right hand and was transferred to the Hassan II Hospital in Agadir, where I spent one night before being discharged. I am sure I was struck by security agents, but don’t know who it was.
The videos, photo material, and medical records of victims that Human Rights Watch reviewed seemed to corroborate the witnesses’ accounts. A video recording of the Inezgane protest published by the website Rassdmaroc (Morocco Monitor) shows anti-riot police wielding rubber batons and holding shields clubbing protesters as they try to seek shelter in a nearby building.
Photos provided by activists show a policeman in anti-riot gear beating a woman in a red headscarf and a white lab coat with a baton as she sits on the ground. Other photos show the same woman, later identified as Lamia Zguiti, a teacher trainee, after the protests with a bloodied face and head as other protesters and medical staff tend to her. Medical records provided by activists indicate that several protesters suffered trauma, including spinal injuries, fractures, and injuries to the face and head.
International human rights standards limit the use of force by police to situations in which it is strictly necessary. The United Nations Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms provide that law enforcement officials may resort to force only if other means remain ineffective and only to the extent needed to achieve the intended, legitimate result.
Under article 21 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, Moroccan authorities are required to respect the right of peaceful assembly, and can only impose proportionate limitations on demonstrations “in the interests of national security or public safety, public order, the protection of public health or morals or the protection of the rights and freedoms of others.” The UN expert on freedom of assembly has said this should mean that states should not require organizers of demonstrations to obtain permission before holding demonstrations, but simply to notify the authorities.
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