Morocco courts uphold heavy sentences for peaceful protesters and dissolve cultural CSO

This update covers the period of the first six months of 2019 – 1st January 2019 to 11th June 2019. During this period the state, with the active assistance of the justice system, continued to restrict civic space in Morocco. In this update we highlight a number of cases of justice system involvement in clamping down on civic space including by upholding excessive prison sentences for Hirak El-Rif social protest activists and its leader Nasser Zefzafi. Persons who expressed criticism of the judge who ruled in the case of Hirak El-Rif have also been subjected to judicial harassment. The courts also sentenced four journalists using restrictive clauses of the penal code and ordered the dissolution of cultural association Racines over critical comments made by guests on an online talk show it hosted.

Peaceful Assembly

On 5th April 2019, the Casablanca court of appeals upheld the heavy prison sentences against 54 activists for their involvement in the socio-economic protests known as the Hirak El-Rif, that took place in Morocco’s northern Rif region in late 2016 and 2017. The sentences were approved despite allegations of torture and fair trial concerns. The leader of Hirak movement, Nasser Zefzafi and three other men saw their sentence of 20 years imprisonment confirmed. Zefzafi was charged with threatening the security of the state.

There have been also reports about poor prison conditions and ill-treatment suffered by the detained protesters. Zefzafi suffered a health deterioration and allegedly was not given access to adequate medical care, according to a statement provided to media by his father. CIVICUS Monitor reported more than a year ago, in February 2018, about Zefzafi's worsening health condition after being held in solitary confinement for over 176 days.

The Casablanca appeal court judgement drew condemnation by international human rights organisations such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International highlighting specifically the court failure to address the credible allegations of torture, despite medical evidence indicating that at least some protesters have been subjected to police violence, and have been forced to offer confessions. Amnesty International called the appeal court’s process a “disturbing miscarriage of justice”.

Human Rights Watch said in a statement:

“The Court of Appeals should have weighed evidence that the police tortured the defendants when it reviewed their conviction and excluded any evidence that appeared to be obtained by torture.”

Of additional concern are the charges brought against the protesters, which Amnesty International found to be “excessive and unjustified”. Amnesty International also found that the type of charges used by court “criminalise and unduly restrict the peaceful exercise of the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly, association and expression.” The charges mainly range from “organising unauthorised demonstrations”, “holding public gatherings without permission”, “open incitement against the territorial integrity of Morocco” to “insulting an official body and law enforcement officials”.

The clamp down on the Hirak El-Rif peaceful protests and imprisonment of the movement’s leaders and protesters was previously covered by the CIVICUS Monitor. Around 400 activists and protesters involved in the Hirak El-Rif popular protests were arrested during the course of 2016 and 2017.

Moroccans protested against the Casablanca Court of Appeal’s decision and demanded the immediate release of the Hirak El-Rif protesters. There have not been reports of restrictions by the authorities during these protests.

  • On 5th April 2019, during the day of the appeal hearing, dozens of people protested in front of the court in solidarity with the defendant activists.
  • On 21st April 2019, hundreds of people took to the streets in the capital Rabat to protest the continued imprisonment of the 54 Hirak El-Rif activists, following the denial of their appeals. Protesters chanted slogans such as “No liberty, no peace” and “Stand with Hirak Rif”.
  • On 20thApril 2019, another protest was also held in the Netherlands to denounce "the heavy sentences" Morocco imposed on Hirak Rif activists as European diplomats also called on Morocco to release the protesters. On 3rd April 2019, prior to the court’s appeal decision, a group of 24 members of the European Parliament sent a letter to Morocco’s justice minister urging the country to immediately release Mr Zefzaki and the other detained protesters.

According to media reports, on 4th June 2091, on the occasion of the religious holiday of Eid Al Fitr, Morocco’s King Mohammed VI pardoned 107 activists detained during the Hirak El-Rif protests in both Al Hoceima and Jerada regions. It is not clear if the leaders of the protest have been among those pardoned. 

Expression

On 27th March 2019, the Rabat Court of First Instance sentenced four journalists to six months suspended prison sentences and a fine of 10,000 dirhams ($2,733). The journalists were charged in 2018 under a provision in the criminal code barring the disclosure of unpublished work by a parliamentary commission of inquiry. The case was brought to the court in 2017 by the president of the House of Councillors, Morocco's upper house of parliament. One of the affected journalists told the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) that the journalists filed an appeal on 28th March 2019.

On the other hand, judicial harassment has been reported in relation to criticism of the Hirak El-Rif’s 5th April 2019 judgement.

According to Frontline Defenders, on 18 April 2019, human rights defender and journalist Omar Radi was summoned to the headquarters of the National Brigade of Judicial Police of Casablanca (BNPJ), where he was subjected to 4-hour long interrogation. Frontline Defenders reported that Omar Radi was interrogated about his Twitter posts from 15th April 2019, that were critical of the judge who ruled in the case of Hirak El-Rif. The investigation was ordered by the general prosecutor of Casablanca in relation to an allegation made against Omar Radi for offending a judge, however, no charges were pressed against him.

The CIVICUS Monitor has previously highlighted concerns about prosecution of those expressing sympathy with the Hirak movement, including for posting comments on Facebook in support of the protests.

Association 

On 16th April 2019, the Casablanca Appellate Court ordered Racines - a local cultural organisation - to dissolve and stop all activities. The Appellate Court upheld an earlier ruling issued by the civil court of first instance of Casablanca on 26th December 2018 arguing that the NGO acted outside its statute. The civil court of first instance based its decision on article 36 of the Law on Associations, which states that “any association engaged in an activity other than the ones provided for by its statutes may be dissolved.”

The decision was in relation to an episode of the talk show 1 Dîner 2 Cons’ (One Dinner, Two Fools) during which some guests criticised King Mohammed VI’s speeches and policies related to the police repression of street protests. The show was posted on YouTube on 5th August 2018. Racines, whose office was used as a venue to record the episode, says the organisation was not affiliated with the talk show or the episode but argued that the episode would fall under the mandate of its statutes as an explicit objective of Racines was to promote free expression. Human Rights Watch, which staff was one of the guests in the mentioned episode, said that the “Racines was neither the organiser of ‘1 Dîner 2 Cons’ nor the party that posted the recorded show on YouTube” and that “the show was not posted on the group’s website or YouTube channel”.

Further, Human Rights Watch stressed that contrary to the court’s argument, Racines’ statutes include activities under which the ‘1 Dîner 2 Cons’ could fall, such as “activism for freedom of speech” among its objectives and “debates (…) concerning free speech.”

In a joint statement Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International said:

“Associations should be free to determine their statutes and activities and make decisions without state interference. The rules governing organisations should not be used as a pretext to suppress exercise of human rights such as the rights to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and association.”

PEN America, part of the PEN International network, also called on the Moroccan authorities to respect the role and freedom of cultural organisations and permit Racines to continue to operate freely and without constraint. The CSO said:

“It is inherent in the work of cultural organisations to facilitate dialogue on issues of importance to society. The Moroccan authorities continued enforcement of the country’s notorious “red lines,” constricting freedom of expression with regard to certain sensitive topics, including the monarchy, represents an infringement on the rights of all Moroccans to have their voices heard. We call on the Moroccan authorities to permit Racines to continue to operate freely and without constraint.”