Morocco’s foremost civil liberties activists won’t attend an international human rights forum that the government launched Thursday in the tourist hub of Marrakech. After numerous attempts this year to bar them from organizing, the activists call the event “a farce” designed to perpetuate misconceptions about the state’s self-branded progressivism.
The Moroccan Association of Human Rights, known by its French abbreviation AMDH, says that this year's World Forum on Human Rights — an annual gathering of international rights activists — is a “masquerade” designed to deceive Western political and business partners about the North African kingdom's 2011 political reform project, launched in response to an ongoing popular movement for civil liberties. A handful of other rights groups, including free press as well as gay and reproductive rights advocacy organizations, are also boycotting the event.
The kingdom is “using the opportunity to present a false image,” said former AMDH president and winner of the U.N. Human Rights Prize, Khadija Riyadi. “We want to say to the international press that this image isn't true. We want a dialogue [with the government], but we don't want the international community to recognize advancements that don't exist. Quite the contrary — we are regressing.”
Moroccan Justice Minister Mustapha Ramid did not respond to interview requests.
Amid the rise of the nation's February 21st movement, named for the date in 2011 when people began taking to the streets to call for democracy, Morocco's King Mohammed VI oversaw a constitutional referendum that ostensibly aimed to devolve absolute power from the throne to elected officials. Western media lauded the project, but activists like Riyadi say that after a series of politically charged prosecutions of dissidents — including artists and journalists — it is clear that the government continues to defend the crown at the expense of civil liberties.
“We are using this to say Morocco is in a good situation. This isn't Syria or Lybia, but we are in a repressive country, where the red lines are very real and very evident,” Riyadi said.
Rights activists estimate that there are at least 300 political prisoners in Morocco.
While the international press appeared to laud Mohammed VI’s “major effort” to respond to the February 21st movement, United Nations investigators met with human rights activists who painted a very different picture of Rabat’s response to the protests. At the Oct. 2012 meetings, men spoke of being sodomized by foreign objects, and one man said his eyelashes had been plucked out, one-by-one, after having attended a protest.
In public address in July, Morocco’s Interior Minister Mohamed Hassad accused non-governmental organizations of working against national interests, including “counterterrorism” efforts. Since then, Riyadi said, police have blocked over 15 AMDH meetings.
Moroccan authorities will “not allow people in NGOs that don’t conform with the government’s opinion to use public space to meet. We see this as very serious. It’s totalitarianism. It’s, simply put, dictatorship,” Riyadi said. AMDH is suing the government over the repression. But critics have called that a losing game in a legal system that they say is often times used to quell dissent.
Although it has criticized Rabat’s attempts to restrict AMDH activism, international advocacy group Human Rights Watch will send its Rabat-based research assistant to the conference, said Eric Goldstein, deputy director of the group’s Middle East and North Africa Division.
“There’s some value to our having [our researcher] interact with people there, to meet organizations that are attending from Morocco and elsewhere,” said Goldstein.
Still, Goldstein says the government appears to be suffering from “schizophrenia,” vacillating between “those who want this forum to showcase Morocco as a place with human rights and those who want to rein in those who criticize the government.”
“I find it disturbing that at the moment Morocco is preparing to host this forum on human rights, it’s taking measures to restrict the freedom of its own human rights organizations,” said Goldstein.
Rabat spends several million dollars a year marketing itself to political and business partners in the West amid allegations that the monarchy has developed a monopoly over the kingdom's major industries, including phosphate extraction. A report by U.S.-based Moroccan rights activist Samia Errazouki revealed that between May and October 2012 alone, the crown spent almost $832,000 on its public relations bid in the United States.
Each year, the kingdom hosts the lavish dollar international music festival, welcoming stars like Mariah Carey, Lenny Kravitz, and Psy to perform. The purpose, rights activists have charged, is to perpetuate an image of a regional bastion of the young, hip and progressive. Meanwhile, in 2012, Western pop icons performed while dissident rapper El-Haqed, the stage name of Mouad Belghuoat that means “the enraged” in Moroccan Arabic, remained in prison for “insulting the nation's law enforcement” after posting a YouTube music video on police brutality. Despite his conviction, El-Haqed and his entourage maintain that he did not create the music video, which featured an image of an officer with a donkey head.
In 2013, the festival was held while El-Haqed was again jailed on charges of public drunkenness and assaulting the police. International human rights NGOs like Human Rights Watch have said the charges were politically motivated.
More recently, Othman Atiq, 17, was released from jail on Nov. 12 after serving a three-month sentence for crimes against the state and public morality. Like El-Haqed, Atiq – also known as Mr. Crazy – raps against police brutality as well as economic and social injustice. Atiq and El-Haqed’s style of rap has been called “m’hebsi” or prison rap, said to be the rap of people who see Morocco as a prison.