Morocco: Call to drop charges against 18-year-old facing jail for 'Barcelona' football graffiti that 'insulted' king

Amnesty International is urging the Moroccan authorities to drop charges against Yassine Bellasal, an 18-year-old student, who has been sentenced to a year in prison for allegedly insulting the Moroccan King Mohamed VI.

Yassine was sentenced to the jail term in September after he wrote on his school wall “God, The Nation, Barça”, in a play of words on the country’s motto “God, The Nation, The King”. According to his family, his intent was only to express his support for the Spanish football team Barcelona. He is currently released on bail ahead of a new court appearance on 5 November.

Amnesty International UK Director Kate Allen:

“This is a ridiculously disproportionate sentence and the Moroccan authorities should see sense and dismiss charges against this teenager immediately.

“Morocco’s heavy-handed suppression of free expression is a real concern. It should release its stranglehold on ordinary criticism - including of the royal family - and allow Moroccans to enjoy the basic right to say what they think.

“Meanwhile, there needs to be a proper investigation of allegations that Yassine was beaten and threatened in police custody following his arrest.”

Yassine Bellasal was originally sentenced by a court in Marrakesh on 28 September 2008 (in addition to the prison term, he was fined 1,000 dirhams, approximately £70) after being arrested at his home in Ait Ourir, some 20 miles from Marrakesh.

He was detained at the local Centre of the Royal Gendarmerie, where he is reported to have been beaten and threatened with electric shock torture. He was then brought before the Royal Prosecutor in Marrakesh on 21 September without legal representation and tried under article 179 of the Moroccan Penal Code, which prescribes imprisonment of up to five years and fines up to 1,000 dirhams for “any offence committed towards the person of the King or the Heir to the Throne”.

Yassine Bellasal’s lawyers have appealed against the verdict and at a hearing before the Marrakesh Court of Appeals on 29 October they requested his provisional release, leading to a granting of bail. A further hearing is due on 5 November.

Criticism of the monarchy remains a taboo subject in Morocco and several journalists, political activists and human rights defenders have been prosecuted in recent years. In some cases they have been sentenced to prison terms for expressing views deemed by the authorities to be critical of or offensive to the King.

Both the Penal Code and the Press Code provide for sentences of up to five years of imprisonment and heavy fines to be imposed on those convicted of “offences” against the person of the King or his family or for “undermining the monarchy”. Amnesty International has repeatedly called on the Moroccan authorities to lift all impediments to freedom of expression and to act in conformity with article 9 of the Moroccan Constitution and to its obligations under article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights by respecting freedom of expression.

Last year, eight members of the Moroccan Association for Human Rights (Association Marocaine des Droits Humains) were sentenced to prison terms of up to four years and fined for “undermining the monarchy”, after they had participated in May Day demonstrations during which slogans criticising the monarchy were chanted. They were pardoned by the King in April this year.

On 8 September 2008, Mohamed Erraji, a Moroccan blogger, was sentenced to two years’ imprisonment and a fine of 5,000 dirhams for “lack of respect due to the King”. On 18 September 2008, the Court of Appeal in Agadir, Morocco, overturned the two-year sentence on the grounds of procedural irregularities in the first trial.

View latest press releases