Morocco is building an ‘ecosystem of repression’ to stifle dissent, HRW says


The Moroccan government has created an “ecosystem of repression” to stifle criticism, through smear campaigns against dissidents, intimidation of their relatives and digital surveillance, according to new findings from Human Rights Watch.

A report by the rights group based on two years of research, released on Thursday, says that in addition to the speech-related charges the Moroccan government has long used to stifle criticism, authorities are increasingly accusing journalists and dissidents of more serious crimes, such as sexual assault and sentencing them to prison terms in unfair trials.

“Authorities are using a playbook of underhanded tactics to crack down on dissidents while working to keep Morocco’s image as a rights-respecting country intact,” said Lama Fakih, Middle East and Africa director. North to Human Rights Watch, in a statement accompanying the report.

Morocco has sought in recent decades to portray itself as a regional human rights benchmark, beginning in the 1990s when the late King Hassan II – known for his brutal repression of dissidents – began to ease his power.

“Since then, Morocco has always played as one of its cards: ‘We are advancing on human rights; we are becoming more and more democratized,’” said Eric Goldstein, deputy Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. But the Arab Spring, which began in Tunisia at the end of 2010, frightened the monarchy, and “they decided to put the genie back in the bottle”.

“Now we are in a situation where there is not really a Moroccan exception,” he said.

Still, Morocco sought to maintain perceptions, Goldstein said — so authorities turned to the more subtle and sophisticated methods of repression detailed in the report.

“These are insidious means that are being used to bring down some of the few outspoken dissidents left in the country,” Goldstein said. “All at first glance may not appear to have fingerprints from the authorities.”

The playbook described in the report consists of harassment campaigns in pro-government media, unfair trials and pre-trial detentions, intimidation, suspicious street attacks that authorities fail to investigate, targeting relatives of dissidents , financial implications and monitoring.

Surveillance tactics include installing hidden video cameras in the homes and cars of dissidents pursuing targets in the streets, according to the report. The Pegasus spyware, produced by the Israeli company NSO Group, has also been used to hack journalists’ smartphones, Amnesty International has previously found.

Morocco has denied using the spyware on journalists and politicians. NSO Group said it only sells to government customers and pledged to investigate alleged abuses of its technology.

Altogether, the tactics represent “a comprehensive methodology for muzzling dissent,” the report says.

Among the most publicized examples is the case of Omar Radi, a Moroccan investigative journalist arrested two years ago. He had become well known for exposing state corruption and defending protesters. Radi had been targeted in a smear campaign by state-aligned media, monitored by spyware Pegasus and convicted for a tweet.

In July 2020, Hafsa Boutahar, a former colleague of Radi at the news site Le Desk, accused Radi of indecent assault and rape. Radi said they had consensual sex. He was arrested on July 29, 2020, and spent a year in pre-trial detention without valid justification, the report said.

Spyware Technology Found on Moroccan Journalist’s Phone, Report Says

Radi, 36, was found guilty of rape and espionage in a combined trial in July 2021 and sentenced to six years in prison. An appeals court upheld the conviction in March.

The espionage charge was “false”, Goldstein said. “On the rape case, all we’re saying is that he didn’t get a fair trial.”

“Independent journalists in the country are repeatedly harassed and slapped with absurd charges, and the Moroccan authorities are not fooling anyone with this judicial sham of retaliation,” Sherif Mansour, Middle East and North Africa program coordinator for the Committee for the Protection of Journalists, a rights group. , said in a statement at the time of Radi’s sentencing.

Authorities did not allow Radi to see his file for nearly a year after his arrest, denied him access to a Belgian lawyer who had traveled to assist him in his defense and rejected a witness in discharge, according to the report.

“In the past, dissidents in Morocco have faced clear political trials, which have made them heroes and won them the support of public opinion,” said Maati Monjib, historian and freedom activist. of expression, in a video accompanying the report. “Today they are accused of rape, theft, treason. It is more effective because they are cut off from public assistance.

Monjib, whose smartphone was infected with the Pegasus spyware, was jailed for three months last year for money laundering. He was released after the US Congressional Human Rights Committee requested his release.

It is difficult to prove that such accusations are politically motivated, and their sensitive nature makes these cases radioactive in diplomatic circles – which is precisely the point, according to the report.

Charges of sexual assault and other serious crimes should be taken seriously, the report said. But Moroccan authorities have “armed #MeToo”, Goldstein warned, referring to the global movement against sexual harassment. The report highlights numerous violations of due process and other rights in these court proceedings, and calls for dissidents to be tried fairly.

In one case, Afaf Bernani, an employee of the newspaper, fled the country after being convicted in 2018 of “libel” of the police. She had accused the police of falsifying a statement saying that the publisher of the opposition newspaper Taoufik Bouachrine, her former boss, had sexually assaulted her.

Journalists and activists have also been found guilty of obtaining illegal abortions or participating in consensual sexual activities prohibited by Moroccan law, including sex outside marriage. Details of their private life – whether true or not – were widely publicized in the courtroom and in the Moroccan media, tarnishing their reputation in the largely conservative Muslim society.

Due to the persecution they faced, some dissidents named in the report who are not behind bars have fled the country. Two critical media institutions – the Moroccan Association for Investigative Journalism and Akhbar al-Youm, an independent newspaper shut down under pressure last year – have also been “relentlessly harassed” by police and judicial authorities, the report says. report.

Human Rights Watch called on the Moroccan government to respect the right to privacy and repeal laws criminalizing consensual same-sex relations, sex between unmarried adults, abortion, and adultery.

Researchers have spent years digging into the details of the report’s eight cases in an effort to urge Morocco’s democratic allies, including the United States and European Union countries, to put more pressure on the government. Moroccan to respect human rights.

“The service we hope to provide is to provide evidence as to why these accusations are false” and constitute state-sponsored forms of repression, Goldstein said.

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