Moroccoʹs treatment of Hirak El-Shaabi

Fair trial? Fat chance

More than a year after protests emerged in the northern city of Hoceima, Moroccan authorities continue to crackdown on support for Hirak, the popular movement that began when fish vendor Mouhcine Fikri was crushed to death in a garbage truck trying to retrieve his confiscated merchandise. By Matthew Greene

On 8 February, a court handed a prison sentence of 20 months to human rights lawyer Abdessadek El Bouchtaoui after convicting the attorney on charges of "insulting public officials" and "contributing to the organisation of an unauthorised and prohibited demonstration".

El Bouchtaoui is among the lawyers representing Hirak activists and demonstrators, including the family of Emad El Attabi, who died following clashes between protesters and police in July 2017 that resulted in over 80 people being injured. The lawyer was charged after posting reports of human rights violations and criticisms against state security forces to Facebook last July, in which he also stated his plans to attend a local protest.

Then on 15 February, activist Nawal Benaissa, a leading voice of Hirak, was sentenced to 10 months in prison on the same charge of inciting protests. Benaissa responded to the courtʹs decision on her Facebook page by expressing her continued support for the Rif protests. "I am proud to take part in the protests in the region and I denounce the imprisonment of Hirak activists. I demand their immediate release," she wrote.

Protesters shout slogans during a demonstration in the northern town of Al-Hoceima against official abuses and corruption; sign reads "We are all Zefzafi", 30.05.2017 (photo: Reuters/Youssef Boudlal)
Accused of a plethora of crimes: fifty-four members of Hirak El-Shaabi, including its figurehead Nasser Zefzafi, are standing trial on charges including unauthorised protest, rebellion, "plotting to undermine internal state security", undermining "citizensʹ loyalty to the Moroccan state institutions", "incitement against the kingdomʹs territorial unity" and "insulting" public officials and institutions

Moroccan security forces have arrested hundreds of protesters since May 2017 for their participation in the largely peaceful demonstrations. At least 410 people are currently in detention and many have been sentenced to up to 20 years in prison, including several minors. Some are believed to have been arrested for expressing support for Hirak on social media websites such as Facebook.

Trial of Zefzafi continues

Among the detained is Hirak figurehead Nasser Zefzafi, who is facing his tenth consecutive month of solitary confinement in a Casablanca prison following his arrest last May, when the activist interrupted a Friday sermon describing Hirak as a fitna, or dissension.

Zefzafi is standing trial along with 53 other members of the movement on charges including unauthorised protest, rebellion, "plotting to undermine internal state security", undermining "citizensʹ loyalty to the Moroccan state institutions", "incitement against the kingdomʹs territorial unity" and "insulting" public officials and institutions.

Zefzafi and his co-defendants insist that Hirakʹs demands are social and economic, claiming that they are being wrongly charged with high-level political offences that could result in life prison sentences if they are found guilty. "They are trying us on charges of secession, but they have been prosecuting us for saying our opinion," said Zefzafi at a court of appeals hearing on 23 February, from which he was later expelled for his remarks.

Defence lawyers representing Zefzafi and other activists have previously protested the allegations made by the public prosecution and claim that the false accusations preclude a fair trial. Zefzafi has also claimed that the director of the Oukacha prison stole his court notes, which he intended to use in a recent hearing.

Meanwhile, Zefzafi and others say their health is in slow decline. The detainees face up to 22 hours of solitary confinement per day and are denied proper nutrition, according to reports, among other conditions that observers speculate are attempts to exhaust the group and weaken their defences.

Nawal Benaissa of the grassroots Hirak El-Shaabi movement attends a protest on May 31, 2017 in the northern Moroccan city of Al-Hoceima demanding the release of Nasser Zefzafi, head of the Al-Hirak (photo: Getty Images/AFP Photo/F. Senna)
Sentenced for inciting protests: activist Nawal Benaissa, a leading voice of Hirak, was sentenced to 10 months in prison on 15 February 2018. Benaissa responded to the courtʹs decision by expressing her continued support for the Rif protests on Facebook. "I am proud to take part in the protests in the region and I denounce the imprisonment of Hirak activists. I demand their immediate release," she wrote

According to Mohamed Chtatou, a political analyst, the whole trial has been a mistake from the outset. "It casts the government and the country in a bad light internationally. Moreover it has also been denounced by the major human rights organisations. The whole process is proving lengthy and unfair; but then, it is a well-known fact that Moroccan justice is not independent."

Excessive force and coercion

Human rights organisations have denounced the criminal charges made against Hirak protesters and the ongoing government crackdown against the movementʹs supporters.

Amnesty International has labelled the accusations made against Zefzafi and others as incompatible with Moroccoʹs human rights obligations. The organisation says that the charges "criminalise the peaceful exercise of the rights to freedom of assembly, association and expression" in the country. Amnestyʹs annual country report released on 22 February cites mass arrests, excessive force and coercion, in addition to allegations of abuse and torture, as being among the violations committed by Moroccan authorities.

"For us, this indicates a worsening of the situation in Morocco following the period of transitional justice," said Mohamed Sektaoui, the Director General of Amnesty International in Morocco, to Huffington Post Maghreb in reference to the countryʹs 2011 constitutional reforms.

Both Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have called for the unconditional release of Zefzafi and Hirak protesters along with the journalist Hamid El Mahdaoui, who is charged with "breach of his obligation to report to the authorities an attempt to undermine the internal security of the State."

El Mahdaoui, a well-known journalist and government critic, is among seven media figures to be arrested and charged for reporting on Hirak. Moroccan authorities have also prevented members of the press from entering Hoceima, including several foreign journalists who were subsequently expelled from the country.

The government has announced it will be pushing through a development project in Hoceima aimed at tackling some of Hirakʹs grievances. Leading members in the government have also called statements accusing the Rif protesters of separatism a mistake. But the government has yet to suggest that it will consider appeals demanding the release of detained Hirak protesters.

"This trial is marginalising the Rif further and further and sending the wrong signals to the citizens of Moroccoʹs periphery," concludes Chtatou.

Matthew Greene

© Qantara.de 2018

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