(New York/Rabat) – Moroccan authorities have since September 2019 arrested and prosecuted at least 10 activists, artists, or other citizens who did nothing but peacefully express critical opinions via Facebook posts, YouTube videos, or rap songs, Human Rights Watch and the Moroccan Association for Human Rights said today. The authorities should immediately free those who are being detained for exercising their right to freedom of expression and drop the charges.
The men face such charges as showing a “lack of due respect for the king,” “defaming state institutions,” and “offending public officials.” None of them were prosecuted under the Press and Publications Law, which is meant to govern offenses related to all forms of public speech. Instead, all were prosecuted under the penal law, which, unlike the Press and Publications Law, punishes offenders with prison terms.
“An increasing number of Moroccans are taking to social media to express bold political opinions, including about the king, as is their right,” said Ahmed Benchemsi, Middle East and North Africa communications director at Human Rights Watch. “As self-censorship erodes, the authorities have stepped in to frantically try to reinstate the red lines.”
By February 5, 2020…
7 men convicted for speech offenses are currently serving their sentences in prison, including
2 whose convictions were confirmed by appeals courts, and
5 whose cases are pending appeal.
3 others are awaiting trial while provisionally free, including
1 at the first instance stage, and
2 at the appeals stage.
Those arrested include students, artists, citizen journalists, and social media commentators who have been arrested and charged for nonviolent, critical commentary on Moroccan authorities. Some have targeted the wealth and lifestyle of King Mohammed VI, contrasting it with what they perceive as the state’s failure to guarantee basic rights and economic opportunities for young Moroccans. Others encouraged people to participate in protests against socio-economic injustice.
On February 5, in partnership with the Moroccan Association for Human Rights, Human Rights Watch published a Case Listing of Moroccan citizens who were imprisoned or indicted recently in violation of their right to express themselves peacefully. This listing will be updated with new cases as documentation about them becomes available.
In 2016, Morocco adopted a new Press and Publications Code, which, in contrast to the previous code, does not punish any speech offenses with prison terms. However, the penal code continues to impose prison terms for a range of nonviolent speech offenses such as showing a lack of due respect for the king, defaming state institutions, and insulting public agents while they are performing their duties. All these offenses are defined broadly, increasing the risk that authorities will use them to suppress critical speech.
Nonviolent criticism of state officials and policies is protected speech under international law, and particularly under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which Morocco ratified in 1979.
Omar Radi, a journalist, was briefly detained and faces up to a year in prison for criticizing a judge in a tweet. The operators of popular YouTube channels “Moul Kaskita ” and “We Love You, Morocco” were sentenced to four and three years in prison, respectively, for showing disrespect to the king. First instance courts convicted Ayoub Mahfoud and Hamza Sabbaar, both students, for the same offense and sentenced them to three years of prison each, even though Mahfoud was accused of doing nothing more than post lyrics of a song on Facebook and Sabbaar merely shared critical Facebook posts and chanted slogans inspired by a rap song he wrote in a football stadium.
Reacting to reports on the increase of people imprisoned over speech offenses, government spokesman Hassan Abyaba said on January 9 that Morocco respects human rights, including free speech, but added that “there is a difference between freedom of expression and opinion, and committing a crime sanctioned by the law.”
“Expressing nonviolent opinions should never be a crime sanctioned by prison terms,” said Youssef Raissouni, secretary general of the Moroccan Association for Human Rights. “A country that takes seriously the international human rights treaties it signed should abolish its domestic speech-muzzling laws or at least stop enforcing them.”
In previous years, a number of journalists have been sentenced to prison terms after unfair trials, but not for speech offenses. However, circumstances around their cases raised concerns that the charges they were prosecuted under were only pretexts for the state to retaliate against their political opinions or affiliations.
For example, Hamid El Mahdaoui, a journalist critical of the government whose YouTube videos in Moroccan dialect attracted tens of thousands of viewers, is serving a three-year sentence on spurious grounds for failing to report a security threat. In September, a court sentenced Hajar Raissouni, a journalist, to a year in prison for having an abortion, a charge she denied. She was granted a royal pardon and freed after 45 days in custody. The case was possibly motivated by Raissouni’s work for Akhbar Al Yaoum, a daily newspaper that authorities have targeted repeatedly for its independent reporting, and her family connections with high-profile dissidents.
“Moroccan authorities seem to have dropped the fig leaf of prosecuting critics on dubious criminal charges and are now going after them directly for speech offenses,” Benchemsi said. “Whether authorities like it or not, peaceful criticsm is a right, period.”