(Tunis) – Moroccan authorities have carried out a two-year campaign of prohibiting and obstructing activities of the country’s largest independent human rights organization, Human Rights Watch said today. The harassment shows no signs of a let-up despite at least four administrative appeals court rulings in favor of the organization.
The Moroccan Association for Human Rights (AMDH) said that authorities have blocked 125 of its meetings, conferences, and other events in public and private spaces throughout the country since July 2014. The authorities either prohibited the events directly or indirectly, such as by putting pressure on the managers of meeting spaces.
Founded in 1979, the AMDH now has 96 local branches, making it Morocco’s largest independent human rights advocacy organization.
The group said that the authorities have also interfered with the registration of 47 local branches and the group’s head office in Rabat by declining to complete the formalities when the branches file documents that they are legally required to submit periodically. The Law on Associations in article 5 requires the authorities to issue a receipt when the documents are filed.
Without a receipt, a branch faces obstacles to carrying out many essential functions, such as opening a bank account or making withdrawals, said Abdelkhalek Benzekri, AMDH director for international relations.
Several branches and the head office have sued the government over the non-issue of receipts and blocking of gatherings. In November 2014, the Rabat Administrative Court issued a finding that the government had erred when prohibiting the AMDH from organizing a conference and ordered the government to pay damages. In another case, the AMDH headquarters in Rabat sued the Ministry of Youth and Sports in the administrative court for prohibiting the organization from using a ministry facility for an event. The court ruled in the group’s favor in January 2015, and ordered the government to pay damages. The government appealed and lost both these rulings, but has yet to implement the judgments.
In 2015, the Administrative Appeals Court ruled in AMDH’s favor against four government appeals of lower court rulings over the failure to provide receipts. In 2016, the administrative court in the first instance held on two other cases that refusing to issue the receipts to AMDH violated the law.
In only seven of the 125 cases in which meetings were blocked did the authorities provide a written notice, the AMDH said. The 125 cases included both internal meetings limited to staff, and events open to the public, including meetings, conferences, and workshops in both public and privately owned venues. The meetings were to cover topics such as women’s rights, workers’ rights, and the overall human rights situation in Morocco.
AMDH said that in other cases, the government pressed owners of private event locations who had agreed to hold the events to call them off. In other instances, AMDH members arrived to find the doors padlocked.
Youssef Raissouni, the AMDH administrative director, said the group has been able to relocate blocked meetings to its own offices and to the premises of friendly organizations.
Moroccan authorities have imposed restrictions on other domestic and regional rights groups. Khadija Ryadi, the president of the Coordination for Maghreb Human Rights Organizations (CMODH) who was formerly the president of AMDH, told Human Rights Watch that authorities refused to let the CMODH file the required documents relating to its recent internal elections. In October 2016, the Rabat Administrative Court ordered the government to accept the filing of CMODH.
Morocco’s 1958 Law on Public Assemblies, as amended in 2002, requires organizers of public meetings to notify the authorities in advance. However, article 3 exempts from the notification requirement “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.”
Benzekri told Human Rights Watch that in the past, as a matter of policy, neither the AMDH’s central bureau in Rabat nor its local chapters had notified the authorities in advance of their public or internal events because it considered itself exempted under article 3, an interpretation that the Rabat Administrative Court has upheld. Lately, in an effort to prevent authorities from blocking events, the AMDH and its branches have been notifying authorities more regularly of upcoming public and internal events, in some cases seeking written approval from the local authorities.
The restrictions on AMDH gatherings went from being rare to frequent around July 2014, when Interior Minister Mohamed Hassad attacked some human rights organizations, accusing them of obstructing the government’s counterterrorism agenda, according to AMDH.
In June 2015, the government expelled two Amnesty International researchers from the country and has not approved any of its research missions since then. In September 2015, it banned Human Rights Watch researchers from conducting research missions to Morocco or Western Sahara.
“The Rabat Administrative Court has now issued several rulings in favor of the AMDH,” Whitson said. “The government should comply with the courts’ rulings, allowing the AMDH once again to organize meetings and events freely.”
Examples of Prohibitions in 2016
According to information provided by the AMDH, authorities prevented 26 events during 2016, including workshops, conferences, and internal meetings.
Although the majority of cases involved publicly operated venues, authorities on several occasions prohibited meetings, including internal meetings, scheduled for private venues such as hotels, Benzekri said. He said that authorities pressured these businesses to reject requests from the AMDH to conduct events there.
In one such case, according to AMDH, on October 9, 2015, the head office, in partnership with the Justice Ministry, held a seminar on disability rights in Rabat. Although the Al-Majliss hotel had agreed to provide accommodation, meals, and a meeting room, the hotel management said after the event began that it would provide accommodation and meals only, and canceled the planned workshops. The hotel told the group that the authorities had instructed it to cancel the activity, AMDH officials said.
Khadija Haddan, president of AMDH’s Tinghir branch in Draa-Tafilalet province, told Human Rights Watch that on December 17, 2016, local authorities prevented the organization from using a public meeting hall for a planned conference on the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women.
Najia Lebrim, president of AMDH’s Temara branch, in Rabat-Salé -Kenitra province, said the organization submitted a written request to the ministry’s local official on October 16, 2016, to use a public hall for a roundtable on the future of public schools. In the past, Lebrim said, the group had received oral approval from the representative’s office and a request for payment. The office approved the use of the hall, but without a request for payment.
But on October 22, the day of the event, the hall’s door was locked and security forces prohibited participants from entering, Lebrim said. The branch moved the event to the local offices of a political party.
Administrative Court Rulings
The AMDH’s Temara branch is one of 47 AMDH branches facing obstacles in obtaining a receipt from local authorities proving that they have complied with their reporting requirements, according to a list provided by AMDH.
Lebrim said that AMDH filed suit on October 26, 2015, at the Rabat Administrative Court, after local authorities refused to accept AMDH’s periodic submission on the branch’s governing structure. The Rabat Administrative Court ruled that the local authorities’ decision violated the law and canceled the government’s refusal to accept the filing.
The government filed an appeal, but on June 29, 2016, the Administrative Appeals Court affirmed that the government wrongly failed to issue the receipt. Despite the ruling, the government has yet to issue the receipt, Lebrim said.
On July 27, 2016, directors of the Coordination for Maghreb Human Rights Organizations (CMODH) appealed a decision by the Rabat Governorate to reject the papers that the CMODH filed concerning changes to its governing structures.
In its suit, CMODH said that the refusal to accept the organization’s submission for renewal violated the group’s right to freedom of association and resulted in financial and moral damage, as it prevented members from carrying out activities, including meetings and conferences. CMODH requested 40,000 dirhams (US$4,000) in compensation for sustaining moral damage and 10,000 dirhams ($1,000) for financial damage.
The government responded that it had rejected CMODH’s original submission for non-compliance with formal requirements, most notably a failure to list a legal representative and discrepancy in the addresses it listed. The government also said that the group did not comply with several requirements of the Law on Associations, including the fact that 16 out of 26 organizations within CMODH were foreign organizations, making CMODH a “foreign organization,” and a failure to formally notify local authorities of the group’s intention to organize a constituent meeting before conducting it.
On October 28, 2016, the Rabat Administrative Court ruled in favor of CMODH, saying that the rejection had resulted in financial and moral damage to the organization and ordered the Interior Ministry to pay 20,000 dirhams (US$2,000) to compensate the organization. CMODH President Khadija Ryadi, who was formerly the president of AMDH, said that the authorities have appealed the administrative court’s decision and have yet to issue a final registration receipt to the CMODH.