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Despite reforms, Moroccan student still in jail for "insulting the king"

Morocco's King Mohammed VI on 24 May 2012
Morocco's King Mohammed VI on 24 May 2012

REUTERS/John Schults

Morocco's authorities should free a student convicted of offending the dignity of the king, Human Rights Watch said today. Two years after adopting a constitution that enshrines freedom of expression, Morocco should abolish the repressive laws that put him in prison.

Abdessamad Haydour, 24, is halfway through a three year sentence for denouncing King Mohammed VI in a video posted on YouTube. He has now served more time behind bars for this offense than any other Moroccan in the last several years, as far as Human Rights Watch has been able to determine.

“If Morocco intends to carry out its new constitutional guarantees of free expression, it needs to get rid of laws that send people to jail for offending the head of state, even if what they say seems crude,” said Joe Stork, acting Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch.

Morocco's constitution, drafted in the wake of 2011 pro-reform demonstrations that toppled presidents in Egypt and Tunisia and reached Moroccan cities, was adopted by a referendum on July 1, 2011. It guarantees “freedom of thought, opinion, and expression in all its forms.” The 2011 constitution also departs from previous constitutions by no longer defining the “person of the king” as “sacred,” although it declares it “inviolable” and “owed respect.”

Government ministers have spoken of the need to revise Morocco's press law, to harmonize it with the new constitution by eliminating prison terms for nonviolent speech offenses. However, the press law has yet to be revised, and Moroccan courts continue to apply its provisions, and provisions of the penal code, to imprison people for nonviolent offenses of speech against the king, state institutions, and private individuals.

A court in the city of Taza, east of Fez, on February 13, 2012, found Haydour guilty of violating penal code article 179 and press code article 41, which prohibit speech deemed to offend the dignity of the king. The court imposed on him a fine of 10,000 dirhams (US $1,200) in addition to the prison term. The ruling was later upheld on appeal on March 14, 2012, and later on cassation.

Haydour's “offense” took place in his native city of Taza, during a month punctuated by demonstrations against unemployment and poor economic conditions. The protests led to clashes with the police, property damage, injuries, and arrests. One evening in January 2012, Haydour and another man conducted an impromptu discussion about politics and justice in front of a group of youths who had gathered to listen. Someone filmed them speaking and uploaded the video to the Internet.
Abdessamad Haydour, 24
Abdessamad Haydour, 24

Human Rights Watch

In the video, Haydour, a student at a technical college, is seen calling Mohammed VI a “dog,” “a murderer,” and “a dictator,” and warning the king that “he can sit in his palace and organize parties,” but as long as people are “starving,” the people “will not let go… and will get their due one day.”

The police arrested Haydour on February 10, 2012 and the court convicted him three days later (misdemeanor case 168/2012). He has been serving his term in Taza Prison, where he went on hunger strike twice, most recently from March to May, to demand that he be separated from common-crime prisoners, and get free access to the prison library and fewer restrictions on visits, a family member told Human Rights Watch.

Mustapha Khalfi, Morocco's minister of communications and government spokesman, announced on May 2, 2012, the creation of a national committee for reforming the press and publishing laws. Khalfi told the media at the time that he expected the initiative to culminate in a new text that eliminated prison sanctions, “which would allow it to progress beyond the mistakes that were made in the [press] law of 2002.”

Yet more than a year later, all of the repressive provisions of the press code and the penal code remain intact.

The 2011 constitution created a right for people taken before the justice system to appeal to a newly created constitutional court, on the grounds that a law being applied in their case “undermines the rights and liberties guaranteed by the constitution” (article 133). The constitutional court can invalidate the law if it agrees.

However, neither Haydour nor anyone else whose rights have been violated has been able to exercise this right, because legislators have yet to promulgate laws creating the court and defining its jurisdiction over such appeals.

Moroccan legislators should move quickly to give effect to this new right to challenge the constitutionality of laws being used to prosecute them, Human Rights Watch said.

Haydour is not the only Moroccan imprisoned in recent years for alleged affronts to the dignity of the king or members of the royal family. A court sentenced 18-year-old Walid Bahomane, in February 2012, to one year in prison for posting remarks and a caricature of King Mohammed VI deemed offensive to his dignity on a Facebook page belonging to someone else that Bahomane had allegedly hacked.

There were also several such cases in the years preceding adoption of the new constitution. In 2007, seven members of the Moroccan Human Rights Association were imprisoned for “attacking sacred values” by allegedly chanting slogans against the king during May Day marches, only to be released in a royal pardon a year later.

In February 2008, a wheelchair-bound 95-year-old, Ahmed Nasser, died in prison, five months into a three year sentence for allegedly muttering an insult to the king during a street altercation. On September 8 of that year, an Agadir court handed down a two year prison term to Mohamed Erraji for “disrespecting the king” in an article he published at www.hespress.com, criticizing Mohammed VI's alleged dispensation of privileges and favors. An appeals court overturned Erraji's conviction a few weeks later.

In addition to laws specifically criminalizing affronts to the king and his family, provisions of the penal and press codes stipulate prison terms for defaming any individual and for defaming and insulting state institutions.

Mouad Belghouat, a rapper known as “al-Haqed,” served a one year term beginning in 2012, after a Casablanca court ruled that one of his songs and an accompanying photo montage posted online insulted the police.

A popular newspaper columnist, Rachid Nini, spent a year in prison beginning in 2011, after a Casablanca court found that he had, through his writings, “insulted” public officials, under penal code article 263, one of the articles also used against Belghouat. The court convicted Nini of additional offenses linked to the content of his columns.Laws that criminalize offending, defaming, or insulting public officials and/or state institutions violate Morocco's obligations under the international human rights treaties it has signed, Human Rights Watch said. The UN Human Rights Committee, in its authoritative interpretation of the right to freedom of expression enshrined in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, stated in 2011:

The mere fact that forms of expression are considered to be insulting to a public figure is not sufficient to justify the imposition of penalties… [A]ll public figures, including those exercising the highest political authority such as heads of state and government, are legitimately subject to criticism and political opposition… States parties should not prohibitcriticism of institutions, such as the army or the administration.

“Haydour's attack on the king may strike some as crass and disrespectful, but as long as he is in prison for it, no Moroccan enjoys the right to speak with complete freedom about the king,” Stork said.

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