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Morocco: crackdown on '20 February' protest movement intensifying

Rap singer Mouad Belghouat one of dozens currently detained

Two years after thousands of people took to the streets of Rabat, Casablanca and other cities in Morocco calling for reform, repression of protests in Morocco remains routine, said Amnesty International today.

To this day, dozens of activists affiliated with the Morocco’s “20 February” movement are reported to be detained for peacefully expressing their views. Some have said they were tortured and ill-treated in custody.

The movement, which was formed in the wave of popular uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa region, demands greater respect for human rights and democracy, better economic conditions and an end to corruption.

Those detained include the rap singer Mouad Belghouat, who was arrested last March and charged with insulting the police after a video of a policeman wearing a donkey head was posted on the internet to one of his songs denouncing police corruption. He was sentenced to one year’s imprisonment, a sentence later upheld by the Casablanca Court of Appeal. He has been on hunger strike at least twice to protest against his detention conditions and he remains in Oukacha prison in Casablanca.

Amnesty International Middle East and North Africa Deputy Director Ann Harrison said:

“Ostensible reforms launched by the Moroccan authorities appear to be designed to shake off criticism from international partners while the authorities continue to suppress protests.

“Peaceful protests must be allowed to take place without harassment or repression, and in no event must protesters or others be arrested and detained arbitrarily.

“Any allegations of ill-treatment or intimidation must immediately be investigated and anyone found responsible brought to justice.

“It is also crucial that those arrested have immediate access to a lawyer, as they are at particular risk of torture and other ill-treatment in the first hours following their arrest.”

One of the members of the 20 February movement, Youssef Oubella, 24, was arrested at a demonstration in Casablanca last July. He told Amnesty that police officers had beaten, insulted and tortured him during his arrest and in police custody. He said he had been forced to sign a statement declaring he had hit a police officer. Last September Oubella and five other members of the movement were sentenced to up to ten months imprisonment for insults and violence against police officers. All said they had been tortured or otherwise ill-treated. They were released last month.

Mohamed Messaoudi, a lawyer who has worked on many cases of activists linked to the 20 February movement, said he had recently noticed an increase in state repression of the group’s demonstrations. He told Amnesty that the authorities routinely charged those arrested with offences such as insults and/or violence against police officers, drug trafficking and participating in an unauthorised demonstration. Messaoudi said the ill-treatment of activists during and following their arrest is widespread, and that the torture Youssef Oubella described is far from being an isolated case.

Following his visit to Morocco and Western Sahara last September, Juan Méndez, the UN Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, said that although the Code of Criminal Procedure guarantees access to a lawyer, “that guarantee is neither fully respected in law nor in practice. The detainee only has access to a lawyer of his choice 24 hours after arrest, for 30 minutes in the presence of an investigator.”

Amnesty is calling on Morocco to amend its laws to ensure that detainees have effective access to a lawyer of their choice from the outset of and throughout their detention, and that they can consult their lawyer in private.

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