Morocco: Dozens arrested over mass protests in Rif report torture in custody

At least 66 people detained over mass protests in Morocco’s northern Rif region have reported suffering torture and other ill-treatment in custody including being heavily beaten, suffocated, stripped naked, threatened with rape and insulted by police, sometimes to force them to “confess”, said Amnesty International.

The organization is calling on Morocco’s authorities to ensure a thorough, independent and impartial investigation into their claims, and for any “confessions” extracted under duress to be excluded from trial proceedings. One protester is also under investigation for “falsely reporting” that police tortured him.

“These protesters took to the streets calling for social justice and better services, yet have faced torture and other ill-treatment, in the form of brutal beatings, rape threats, insults and other abuse. It is vital that the authorities thoroughly investigate these claims and that those behind this reprehensible abuse are brought to justice,” said Heba Morayef, North Africa Research Director for Amnesty International.

Since May 2017, police have arrested more than 270 people over the Rif protests, many of them arbitrarily, including peaceful activists and some journalists. The overwhelming majority are in detention, and many have already been sentenced to prison terms for protest-related charges. At least 50 are currently being investigated on state-security charges and one on terrorism charges. Some could face up to life in prison.

On 7 August the authorities announced the death of protester Imad el-Attabi, who had been in a coma after being critically injured in the head during demonstrations in Al Hoceima on 20 July. The authorities have announced that they are investigating the circumstances in which he was injured.

Some detainees had visible injuries when they emerged from police custody and first appeared before prosecutors, according to five lawyers who were present. They said at least 28 of the detainees they represented

told prosecutors and judges they had been tortured, and sometimes forced into signing documents without reading them.

On 3 July, detained protester Omar Bouhrass told the investigating judge at the Casablanca Court of Appeals that he had been tortured. According to his lawyer, Bouhrass said that police beat him while ordering him to say “Long live the King”, stripped him of his underwear, broke two of his teeth, and threatened and insulted him following his arrest in Al Hoceima. The court ordered that he undergo a medical examination but his lawyer was not informed of any official investigation. Instead, he now faces an additional charge, which could result in a prison sentence, after judicial authorities opened an investigation against him for “false

reporting” against the police.

“No one should face imprisonment for plucking up the courage to tell a judge that police beat and humiliated them in custody,” Heba Morayef said.

“By prosecuting those reporting such abuse, instead of protecting them and properly investigating their claims, Morocco’s authorities risk silencing dozens of torture survivors.”

Moroccan courts have imprisoned activists for reporting torture in the past, deeming such reports offensive to the police. Article 264 of the Penal Code punishes “false reporting” with up to a year in prison and

5,000 Moroccan dirhams (about $US530) in fines.

Detained activist Rabie Lablak told two lawyers and his brother that police tortured him following his arrest on 28 May. He said they suffocated him by stuffing a cloth soaked with a foul-smelling liquid into his mouth, then stripped off his clothes and brought in masked men who threatened to gang rape him then rape him with a bottle, if he did not sign the interrogation reports. His health deteriorated after he staged a 36-day hunger strike to protest his arrest and ill-treatment.

Leading protester Nasser Zefzafi also told the Casablanca Court of Appeals that police officers beat him in custody and threatened to rape his elderly mother in front of him, according to his lawyer. He and five other protest leaders remain detained in prolonged solitary confinement while being investigated on state-security charges, taking a dramatic toll on their psychological well-being. Prolonged solitary confinement (lasting more than 15 consecutive days) is prohibited under international standards on detention because it amounts to torture or other ill-treatment.

In early July, extracts from a confidential report by Morocco’s National Human Rights Council (CNDH) leaked to the media, revealed that the CNDH had investigated 36 cases of reported torture or other ill-treatment and recommended thorough judicial investigations. On 12 July, the Minister of Justice and Liberties revealed that 66 medical examinations had been ordered.

Five lawyers told Amnesty International that the medical examinations were carried out several days after they were ordered, by which point injuries had started to heal. Some also expressed concern that the examinations did not rely on x-rays or other medical imagery and that no psychological evaluations were carried out.

One lawyer told Amnesty International that the General Crown Prosecutor at the Al Hoceima Court of Appeals has since opened investigations in at least 23 cases of alleged torture. However, the Courts of First Instance and Appeals in Al Hoceima have convicted Rif protesters without awaiting the conclusion of these investigations. The courts failed to exclude statements that may have been extracted under torture or other ill-treatment, lawyers said.

Morocco is a state party to international treaties prohibiting torture and other ill-treatment and is legally obliged to impartially investigate all such allegations, hold those responsible accountable, and provide reparation to victims. No statements made under duress should be admitted as evidence in court.

The Rif popular movement calls for social justice and improved public services in the long-marginalized northern region. Defence lawyers say many are facing trumped-up charges because of their peaceful protest, dissent, or online coverage of the demonstrations.

At least 41 people were pardoned on 29 July, the anniversary of King Mohammed VI’s accession to the throne. However, the majority of those facing trial, including seven journalists, remain behind bars.

“The royal pardons were a welcome step but do not go far enough. Morocco’s authorities must now release all those detained solely for exercising their human rights to peaceful assembly and freedom of expression both online and offline,” said Heba Morayef.