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A year of reform and repression in Morocco and the Western Sahara

Fair Trials Elusive; Rights Activists, Protesters Face Restrictions

Protesters take part in a demonstration called by the Democratic Labor Organization (ODT) for better working conditions and retirement in Rabat, Morocco February 7, 2016. The sign reads,
Protesters take part in a demonstration called by the Democratic Labor Organization (ODT) for better working conditions and retirement in Rabat, Morocco February 7, 2016. The sign reads, "Retirement at 60".

REUTERS/Youssef Boudlal

This statement was originally published on on 12 January 2017.

Morocco in 2016 adopted important legal reforms but at the same time targeted selected opposition voices and protests for repression, Human Rights Watch said in its World Report 2017.

Authorities restricted the activities of local human rights associations and systematically prevented pro-independence gatherings in Western Sahara. Moroccan courts imposed long prison terms after unfair trials of people charged with terrorism-related or politically motivated offenses.

“If Morocco respected rights as much as it adopted laws designed to respect rights, it would indeed be the model that its advocates make it out to be,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch.
In the 687-page World Report, its 27th edition, Human Rights Watch reviews human rights practices in more than 90 countries. In his introductory essay, Executive Director Kenneth Roth writes that a new generation of authoritarian populists seeks to overturn the concept of human rights protections, treating rights as an impediment to the majority will. For those who feel left behind by the global economy and increasingly fear violent crime, civil society groups, the media, and the public have key roles to play in reaffirming the values on which rights-respecting democracy has been built.

Morocco's parliament, before concluding its five-year term in August 2016, amended laws advancing free expression and the rights of domestic workers, victims of human trafficking, and persons with disabilities. How those reforms are carried out beginning in 2017 will test the political will of authorities to make these legal reforms a reality.

New laws reduced the number of nonviolent speech offenses that impose prison as a mandatory punishment, but maintained prison as punishment for crossing Morocco's famous red lines: speech “harming” Islam, the monarchy, or the person of the king, and “inciting against territorial integrity – Morocco's claim to Western Sahara.”

Judicial independence, as affirmed in the 2011 constitution, remains elusive as criminal courts treat police statements as inviolate, rarely investigating evidence that they were either falsified or obtained through improper coercion of the suspect, and without a defense lawyer present. Courts also prosecute adults for consensual same-sex intimate behavior, under a law providing up to three years in prison for “sexual deviancy.”

Implementation continued of a 2013 national strategy to overhaul national policies toward migrants and asylum-seekers. While a draft law on the right to asylum had yet to be adopted, Morocco's refugee agency granted one-year renewable residency permits to more than 500 refugees recognized by the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), and to thousands of sub-Saharan migrants who were not asylum-seekers but who met criteria set forth in the 2013 plan.

However, authorities maintained tight restrictions on the Moroccan Association for Human Rights, the country's foremost critical human rights organization, blocking many of the activities of its numerous local chapters, while denying Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International permission to conduct official research missions in Morocco or Western Sahara. The authorities also expelled foreign TV crews who entered “without authorization” and several foreign delegations who came to witness human rights conditions in Western Sahara or attend human rights events there.

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