The Kingdom of Morocco, praised by the US for its elections and reform efforts, has cracked down on pro-democracy activists, who allege Moroccan authorities abused them.
In late August, during a court hearing in Casablanca, six Moroccan activists told a judge they were physically and sexually abused by police during their detention, people at the trial said.
“Each one of them said that at the time of the arrest and in the police van, police officers beat them after blindfolding them and abused them again at the police station,” Larbi El Hilali, a blogger and activist who posted an account of the trial on his blog, told Al-Monitor. “One defendant testified that they pulled his eyelashes to make him shout 'long live the king.'”
The activists were arrested on July 22 following a protest in Casablanca against the high cost of living. They were sentenced on Sept. 12 to six-to-10 months in prison for holding a protest without authorization, assaulting and cursing police officers. The six activists are members of the pro-democracy February 20 Movement that emerged in early 2011 after the Arab Spring reached Morocco.
Nour Essalam Karatchi, a 21-year-old activist told the judge, in a room packed with supporters, he experienced additional humiliation at the police station where officers made him remove his clothing and inserted fingers and other objects in his anal cavity.
“After our refusal to sign a statement without reading it, they threatened to pull off our fingernails,” another defendant, Tarek Rouchdi, said.
In a joint public statement written from prison, the activists say they were forced to go on a hunger strike to obtain the right to medical treatment. They describe a very harsh arrest: They were thrown in a police van where they were struck with truncheons while being called names.
“They refused to give us medical attention — [prisoner] Samir Bradelly had a deep wound on his head that required several stitches,” the statement read. “He asked for help several times but in vain. He forced himself to stay awake all night without resting his head on the ground to prevent an inflammation.”
Laïla Nassimi, a 51-year-old poet living in Casablanca, received a six-month suspended sentence. She was the only one to not be held in preventive custody at the Oukacha prison in Casablanca. She said that during the 48 hours in custody, they received rough treatment and she denies the charges, insisting that the protest was peaceful.
“We were beaten and humiliated.” she told Al-Monitor. “And the cops lied when they said I hit them.”
The unrest that swept the Arab world after the fall of former Tunisian President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali in January 2011 reached Morocco in February of last year. The country faces the same problems as Tunisia and Egypt such as widespread unemployment and rising inflation. Thousands of protesters took to the streets, marching against autocracy, corruption and demanding radical reforms. King Mohammed VI responded quickly to the wave of protests with reforms, introducing a new constitution promising greater freedoms. That bought the regime significant time.
In July 2011, a referendum on the new constitution won 98.5% of the vote. Elections were held that same year on Nov. 25, allowing the Justice and Development Party, a moderate Islamist party, to form a new government led by Prime Minister Abdelilah Benkirane. The 47-year-old king remained both the secular and religious leader of a nation that reveres its 12-century-old monarchy.
But many Moroccan activists have called the changes “cosmetic,” and continue taking to the streets. And months after the political reforms, the economic situation hasn't improved: The country is facing a soaring budget deficit, one in every second youth is unemployed and a severe drought has cut the country's wheat harvest by half this year.
People continue to protest because the country's economic problems remain unresolved. Observers say that now that the regime doesn't feel threatened by the weakened pro-democracy movement, authorities are violently cracking down on protestors. The Moroccan Association of Human Rights reported that more than 50 activists are in jail on charges of varying crimes. Rapper Mouad Belrouat, 24, known as El-Haqed or “The Spiteful,” was sentenced to one year in prison in May for a song in which he insulted the police. Belkhdim Younes, 24, a poet, was arrested on March 30 while participating in a sit-in to support El-Haqed and was sentenced to 10 months for assault with intent and for damaging public property.
“The regime is trying to gain back all the respect it lost in 2011,” said Abdellah Tourabi, a researcher at the Paris Institute of Political Studies. “There was a need to promote abroad an image that Morocco was the exception but now the state wants to reinstate the fear and make sure people understand the fun times are over.”
Human Rights Watch expressed concern earlier this year over the crackdown on peaceful activists.
“The sentencing of a rapper on May 11, 2012 to one year in prison for 'insulting the police' shows the gap between the strong pro free-expression of speech in Morocco’s 2011 constitution and the continuing intolerance for those who criticize state institutions,” the organization said in a May statement.
The human rights group this week urged the Moroccan judiciary to investigate the torture allegations.
“The court sent protesters to jail on the basis of confessions allegedly obtained under torture while refusing to summon the complainants to be heard in court," said Eric Goldstein, HRW's deputy Middle East and North Africa director.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, on the other hand, praised the country's recent reforms and the elections "to ensure that the government reflects the will of the people," and added that King Mohammed "deserves great credit for the work" he has undertaken.
Even so, one of the six activists' lawyers, Omar Bendjelloun, maintains that they were tortured, exposed to physical violence, verbal threats and intimidations. He says his clients were blindfolded, received repetitive blows on their faces and were molested.
“The medical report of the official police doctor stated that they are healthy without even examining them, while the first prosecutor in charge of the case declared that he saw bruises on the bodies of the defendants,” he told Al-Monitor. “This reflects a tolerance policy toward torture where the logic of the police state becomes more important than the rule of law.”
Bendjelloun said he will file an official complaint on the abuse now that the trial is over.
The issue of sexual abuse inside prisons was brought up this summer when a parliamentary commission presented a report denouncing frequent attacks and rapes without the intervention of the prison staff.
Nassimi, the only woman in the group arrested in July, has been part of the February 20 Movement from its start. She said that police brutality will not stop the movement from continuing to fight for more rights in Morocco.
“The expectations of the movement were never met,” she said. “And we will continue demonstrating and pressuring for change.”
Aida Alami is a Moroccan freelance journalist who has written for numerous publications, including the International Herald Tribune and Foreign Policy. You can follow her on Twitter: @AidaAlami