Morocco: Rif protesters punished with wave of mass arrests
The Moroccan authorities have carried out a chilling wave of arrests rounding up scores of protesters, activists and bloggers in the Rif, northern Morocco, over the past week following months of protests demanding an end to marginalization of communities and better access to services in the region, said Amnesty International.
Some of those detained have been denied prompt access to their lawyers in police custody. In some cases lawyers who were able to see their clients in court in Al Hoceima said they bore visible injuries and reported being beaten upon arrest. There are also fears that peaceful protesters and bloggers covering the protests on social media could be among those facing trial and potential state security-related charges.
“We fear this wave of arrests may be a deliberate attempt to punish protesters in the Rif for months of peaceful dissent. It is essential that the Moroccan authorities respect the right to freedom of expression and assembly. Those charged with a legally recognized offence, must not be denied the right to a fair trial. The authorities should also ensure that peaceful activists are not convicted on trumped-up charges as punishment for participating in protests in the Rif,” said Heba Morayef, North Africa Research Director for Amnesty International.
The recent wave of protests was triggered when protest leader Nasser Zefzafi publicly criticized a cleric leading the midday prayer in a mosque in Al Hoceima on 26 May, for statements allegedly opposing popular protests in the Rif. A video of the incident was later shared on social media and he was arrested days later.
Between 26 and 31 May 2017, security forces arrested at least 71 people following protests in Al Hoceima and the neighbouring towns of Imzouren and Beni Bouayach. Some protests escalated into stone-throwing at security forces who on occasion deployed water cannons and teargas in response. Injuries were reported on both sides. However, many activists, including peaceful protesters and bloggers who had documented the events on social media, were arrested after the protests had ended.
At least 33 people are now on trial after being charged by the Crown Prosecutor in Al Hoceima. The charges against them include assaulting and insulting public officers, stone-throwing, rebellion and unauthorized gathering. A request to release 26 of them from pre-trial detention was refused and the case was adjourned until 6 June. They remain in detention at Al Hoceima Local Prison.
Lawyers told Amnesty International that they had seen visible injuries on the faces and bodies of several defendants who appeared before the Crown Prosecutor in Al Hoceima. They said that the defendants described how police officers had beaten, kicked, hit and slapped them upon arrest and during their transfer to police stations. Many reported being insulted or threatened by the officers who arrested them, including being threatened with rape. Others said they signed interrogation reports only to realize that extra pages had been added without their consent. The Crown Prosecutor has ordered medical examinations in several cases.
Lawyers also told Amnesty International that they had been unable to visit any of their clients while they were in police custody in Al Hoceima. Judicial police in Al Hoceima failed to notify detainees’ relatives of their whereabouts preventing them from instructing lawyers on their behalf and meaning that lawyers were unable to secure authorization from the Crown Prosecutor to visit clients in police custody before the 24 hour limit following arrest expired, as is required by Moroccan law.
Thirty-one of the 71 arrested between 26 and 31 May have been transferred to Casablanca for police interrogation by Morocco’s National Brigade for the Judicial Police (BNPJ), a national police body which tackles serious crimes, including state security and terrorism offences. Although the detainees have yet to be formally charged, this raises fears that authorities may accuse them of state security offences.
“It is deeply alarming that the authorities may be considering state security charges to punish activists participating in protests,” Heba Morayef said.
Lawyers were only able to visit a group of 22 of the 31 detained in Casablanca on 1 June. Most told their lawyers that police officers had insulted, threatened, and in some instances beaten and kicked them, either upon arrest, during transfer to the police station or at the police station in Al Hoceima. They reported adequate conditions of detention while in BNPJ custody, however. They will shortly be transferred back to Al Hoceima for a hearing before the General Crown Prosecutor at the Al Hoceima Court of Appeals.
Lawyers have not yet been able to see a group of seven other detainees, including protest leader Nasser Zefzafi, whose access to lawyers was delayed by judicial authorities. They are expected to receive a visit from their lawyers on 5 June. Two people arrested on 31 May have yet to receive a visit from lawyers.
Morocco’s Code of Criminal Procedure allows detainees to be held without charge in police custody for up to three days for ordinary offences, and longer periods of up to eight days for state-security offences, and 12 days for terrorism-related offences. The law also allow judicial authorities to delay access to lawyers, if required for the investigation.
“Detainees are most vulnerable to human rights violations in the first hours following arrest, especially if they are cut off from the outside world – so the notification of families, and prompt access to lawyers are imperative,” Heba Morayef added.
Amnesty International has called on the authorities to include the right to have a lawyer during police interrogation for all suspects in its ongoing criminal procedure reform.
Shortly after the incident at the Al Hoceima mosque that triggered the wave of protests, security forces raided the home of the protest leader Nasser Zefzafi in his absence, damaging property and confiscating books belonging to his elderly parents with whom he lives. Days later on 29 May, he was arrested after an elaborate manhunt commandeering neighbouring homes, and transferred by helicopter to the BNPJ headquarters in Casablanca.
Amnesty International fears that the manner in which he was arrested, and official statements detailing offences he is suspected of before he is formally charged, may have breached his presumption of innocence and that of activists arrested with him. Leaked pictures and videos of his arrests showing him hooded and forced to hold his head down, also raise concerns that he may have been treated in a degrading manner.