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Maati Monjib

In the past, dissidents in Morocco were faced with clear-cut political trials, which made them heroes and earned them public opinion support. Nowadays, they are accused of rape, theft, treason…This is more efficient (to take them down) because they are cut from public support.

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How to deal with dissidents

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Allegations of serious crimes should be investigated thoroughly and tried fairly. But in Morocco, when the accused is a dissident, fair trial norms are often violated.

That is just a chapter of a sophisticated playbook that Moroccan authorities have developed to muzzle high-profile dissidents.

After more than two years of research, Human Rights Watch exposes how that playbook works.

The playbook tactics include a mix of character-assassination campaigns, video and electronic surveillance, unfair trials ending in unjust verdicts, witness intimidation, and sometimes physical violence and the targeting of family member.

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1. “Character Assassination Campaigns”

Maati Monjib

Historian and activist who tried to unite opposition iIslamists and secularists

“Maati Monjib, the Historian Liar”

“Monjib, the Renegade Who Betrayed Morocco”

“Screw the Traitors: Maati Monjib Is a Foreign Agent”

“Monjib: a Hired Gun, Ungrateful Liar, and the Rest Is Yet To Come...”

“The Criminal Mindset of Maati Monjib”

This is just a small sample of the headlines that websites close to the authorities published about me. Me and others… Anyone who raises their head, they get this treatment.

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#2. Video and Cyber surveillance

Fouad Abdelmoumni

Human Rights activist and outspoken critic of the authorities

They planted two video cameras in the AC units of my apartment – here’s one. They filmed me in intimate situations with my fiancée, and then sent the videos to her family members.

A tech lab informed me that my smartphone had been infected with the Spyware Pegasus, which allows access to emails, photos, recordings, phone calls… everything. Basically, they had access to all my private life.

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#3. Unfair trials, unjust verdicts

Fatiha and Driss Radi

Parents of Omar Radi, journalist who investigated state corruption

Omar remained in pretrial detention, without [detailed] justification for a year, without access to his own case file. He didn’t know the [detailed] charges against him. How could he defend himself without even knowing that? When Omar’s trial started, the tribunal refused to listen to witnesses in his favor. In the end, after many sessions, Omar was sentenced to 6 years.

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#4. Witness Intimidation

Afaf Bernani

Staffer at opposition daily who refused to testify against her boss

When the police was interrogating me, they pressured me to say that I was a victim of sexual harassment at the hands of journalist Taoufik Bouachrine. Of course, I refused because the man never harassed me. After the [interrogation] report was out, I discovered that they made me say what I had refused to say, and that my [interrogation] report had been falsified. That’s when I understood that they really wanted to take him [Bouachrine] down. After I protested, they prosecuted. me for “defamation” [of the police] and the tribunal sentenced me to 6 months in jail at record speed. Because of all that, I decided to leave Morocco. I had no choice.

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#5. Physical Violence

Hicham Mansouri

Former manager of an association for investigative journalism

I was out of a work meeting, it was the evening, I was walking back home, when 2 men suddenly attacked me, punching and kicking. They especially targeted my face, but also hit me on multiple parts of my body. Since they broke my glasses, I couldn’t see anything. I fell on the floor, but they kept kicking me. The aggression was quick and professional. I pressed charges, but the police didn’t deal with my complaint seriously.

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#6. Targeting Family Members

Wahiba Khourchech

Former police officer who accused a commander of sexual harassment

My husband received pictures showing me, my lawyer, and my daughter in my hotel room. The picture was accompanied by a text message claiming that I cheated on my husband with my lawyer.

Another time, I was walking in Casablanca, when two [unknown] men accosted me, threatened me and said, “Your daughter is dead” mentioning her name. My daughter was then 6.

I called home, thank God, she was okay. I was beside myself.

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These tactics, among others, combine to form an ecosystem of repression.

The aim is to muzzle outspoken dissidents as well as to deter all critics from speaking out.

The international community must publicly denounce these deceptive tactics and support Moroccan independent voices.

Toward the end of his reign, Morocco’s King Hassan II eased his iron-fisted grip on the country, releasing long-serving political prisoners and allowing more space for dissent.

Upon Hassan II’s death in 1999, he was succeeded by his son, King Mohammed VI, who maintained a cautious pace of reform, burnishing Morocco’s reputation as an exception in a region rife with repressive governments. In 2012, Hillary Clinton, then US secretary of state, hailed Morocco as “a leader and model” in the Middle East.

The Arab Spring uprisings of 2011 prompted a course reversal. Although major street protests in Morocco never threatened to topple the regime, authorities soon began to stall and even reverse the reforms.

A decade later, Morocco is relatively stable and free of political violence, but it is no longer an exception to the region’s repressive norm. Yet Moroccan authorities continue to zealously promote the kingdom’s image as a “model” and champion of human rights.

A centerpiece of this strategy, which Human Rights Watch has documented in a new report, is what we term a playbook to crush dissent: an ensemble of measures devised to subtly silence prominent critical journalists, dissidents, and human rights activists who either refused to soften their tone or go into exile.

Moroccan journalist Hajar Raissouni after leaving prison in Sale near the capital Rabat on October 16, 2019. © 2019 Fadel Senna/AFP via Getty Images

Scurrilous stories appear in pro-government media against critics and sometimes their relatives. They may be subject to physical or digital surveillance, and anonymous threats. 

Ultimately, some face criminal investigations leading to convictions and imprisonment after unfair trials. Some are accused of crimes relating to private consensual conduct, such as nonmarital sex or abortion. Others are accused of serious crimes such as espionage, embezzlement, and even rape or sexual assault.

Because people aren’t being imprisoned for speech offenses, Moroccan authorities can claim that free expression is alive and well. As for character assassination on pro-government websites, Moroccan authorities might argue it is just part of the media landscape.

Yes, serious crimes should be properly investigated, and no one should be above the law. But in Morocco, the chances of a fair trial are remote if the defendant is a dissident.

And while scandal-mongering media exist in many countries, in Morocco, there is no independent press to counter it.

This crackdown on the regime’s critics may be indirect, but Morocco’s allies and the UN should not shy away from denouncing it for what it is: state-sponsored repression that shouldn’t exist in a country that wishes to be seen as rights-respecting.

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