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Morocco builds ‘ecosystem of repression’ to quash dissent, report says

Journalist and activist Omar Radi speaks after a hearing outside a courthouse in Casablanca, Morocco, in March 2020. Radi had been targeted in a defamation campaign by state-aligned media, surveilled through Pegasus spyware and convicted for a tweet. (Abdeljalil Bounhar/AP)
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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 by Human Rights Watch.

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

“Authorities use a playbook of underhanded tactics to repress dissenters while striving to keep intact Morocco’s image as a rights-respecting country,” Lama Fakih, the Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement accompanying the report.

Morocco sought in recent decades to portray itself as a regional standout on human rights, beginning in the 1990s, when the late King Hassan II — known for his brutal repression of dissidents — began to soften his rule.

“Since then, Morocco has always played as one of its cards, ‘We are moving forward on human rights; we are increasingly democratizing,’ ” said Eric Goldstein, a deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Middle East and North Africa division. But the Arab Spring, which began in Tunisia in late 2010, scared the monarchy, and “they decided to basically put the genie back in the bottle.”

“Now we’re in a situation where there isn’t really a Moroccan exception,” he said.

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

“These are insidious means that are used to take down some of the few remaining outspoken dissidents in the country,” Goldstein said. “All of them at first glance can appear to not have the fingerprints of authorities.”

The playbook described in the report consists of harassment campaigns in pro-government media, unfair trial proceedings and pretrial detentions, intimidation, suspicious street assaults that authorities do not investigate, the targeting of dissidents’ relatives, financial repercussions and surveillance.

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

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

All told, the tactics represent “a comprehensive methodology to muzzle dissent,” the report says.

Among the most high-profile examples is the case of Omar Radi, a Moroccan investigative journalist who was arrested two years ago. He had become well known for exposing state corruption and defending protesters. Radi had been targeted in a defamation campaign by state-aligned media, surveilled through Pegasus spyware and convicted over a tweet.

In July 2020, Hafsa Boutahar, a former colleague of Radi’s at the news site Le Desk, accused Radi of indecent assault and rape. Radi said they had had consensual sex. He was arrested July 29, 2020, and spent a year in pretrial detention without proper justification, the report says.

Spyware technology found on phone of Moroccan journalist, report says

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

The espionage charge was “bogus,” Goldstein said. “On the rape case, all we say is, he did not have a fair trial.”

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

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

“In the past, dissidents in Morocco were faced with clear-cut political trials, which made them heroes and earned them public opinion support,” Maati Monjib, a historian and free-speech activist, said in a video accompanying the report. “Nowadays, they are accused of rape, theft, treason. This is more efficient because they are cut off from public support.”

Monjib, whose smartphone was infected with Pegasus spyware, was jailed for three months last year on money-laundering charges. He was freed after the U.S. Congress’s human rights commission called for his release.

It’s difficult to prove that such charges are politically motivated, and their sensitive nature makes these cases radioactive in diplomatic circles — which is precisely the point, the report argues.

Accusations of sexual assault and other serious crimes must be taken seriously, the report says. But Moroccan authorities have “weaponized #MeToo,” Goldstein warned, referring to the global movement against sexual harassment. The report points out numerous violations of due process and other rights in these judicial proceedings, and calls for dissidents to be tried fairly.

In one instance, newspaper employee Afaf Bernani fled the country after she was convicted in 2018 of “defamation” of the police. She had accused the police of forging a statement saying that opposition newspaper publisher Taoufik Bouachrine, her former boss, had sexually assaulted her.

Journalists and activists have also been convicted of obtaining an illegal abortion or participating in consensual sexual activity that is prohibited under Moroccan law, including sex outside of marriage. Details of their private lives — true or not — have been aired widely in the courtroom and in Moroccan media, tarnishing their reputations in the largely conservative Muslim society.

As a result of the persecution they have faced, some of the dissidents cited in the report who aren’t behind bars have fled the country. Two critical media institutions — the Moroccan Association for Investigative Journalism and Akhbar al-Youm, an independent newspaper closed under pressure last year — were also “relentlessly harassed” by police and judicial authorities, the report says.

Human Rights Watch called on the Moroccan government to uphold the right to privacy and to repeal laws criminalizing consensual same-sex relationships, sex between adults who are not married, abortion and adultery.

Researchers spent years delving into the details of the eight cases in the report with the aim of prompting Morocco’s democratic allies, including the United States and countries in the European Union, to put more pressure on the Moroccan government to respect human rights.

“The service we hope to provide is to give the evidence of why these charges are bogus” and constitute forms of state-sponsored repression, Goldstein said.

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