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Morocco legalises fiercely critical Sahrawi rights group

A man takes part in a demonstration in support of Western Sahara's independence, in Madrid November 16, 2014
A man takes part in a demonstration in support of Western Sahara's independence, in Madrid November 16, 2014

REUTERS/Juan Medina

This statement was originally published on hrw.org on 24 August 2015.

Moroccan authorities have for the first time allowed a Sahrawi human rights organization fiercely critical of the government to legally register. This advance for freedom of association in Morocco came 10 years after the Western Sahara group applied and nine years after a court ruled that the government had unlawfully impeded the group from registering.

Morocco should now end all arbitrary obstacles on the activities of the group, the Sahrawi Association of Victims of Human Rights Abuses Committed by the Moroccan State (ASVDH), including a de facto prohibition of public rallies and sit-ins. The government should allow the registration of all peaceful associations in Morocco and Western Sahara whose registration authorities have blocked, Human Rights Watch said.

“By recognizing a group that unsparingly criticizes government abuses of Sahrawi rights, Morocco has taken a positive step,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director. “The Moroccan government should follow through by ending arbitrary and politically motivated restrictions on this group and on all nongovernmental associations.”

Morocco has broken a longstanding taboo by legally recognizing an association whose name refers to grave violations committed by the Moroccan State against Sahrawis.
Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director

Morocco has ruled Western Sahara since 1975, though the international community does not recognize the annexation. Violations of the right to create associations has been part of a pattern of repression targeting activists deemed supportive of self-determination or independence for the territory. The pattern also includes a systematic prohibition of public protests. Numerous Sahrawis who favor self-determination have been imprisoned in recent years on criminal charges after unfair trials, including ASVDH members Ahmed Sbaï, serving a life sentence, and Mohamed Tahlil, serving 25 years.

Morocco's Law on Associations requires new groups to register, but not to get official approval to operate. Founders of an association must submit documents with the association's aims, office-holders, and other information to a local administrator, who issues a provisional receipt on the spot. The authorities have 60 days to file an objection based on criteria set forth in the law. If no objection is filed, the association can operate legally, whether or not it receives a final receipt.

Those criteria prohibit any association that “aims to undermine the Islamic religion, the integrity of national territory, or the monarchical regime, or that advocates discrimination.” Undermining “territorial integrity” has been understood to refer to challenging Morocco's claim over Western Sahara.

In practice, however, Moroccan authorities often use administrative subterfuge to block the registration of groups whose objectives, tactics, or leadership they dislike, including many groups not involved with Western Sahara. Scores, if not hundreds, of associations have arbitrarily been prevented from registering for years.

Morocco should eliminate the restrictions from its Law on Associations because they violate Morocco's obligations under international law, Human Rights Watch said. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which Morocco has ratified, states in article 22, “No restrictions may be placed on the exercise of [the right of association] other than those which are prescribed by law and which are necessary in a democratic society in the interests of national security or public safety, public order (ordre public), the protection of public health or morals or the protection of the rights and freedoms of others.”

The most common administrative maneuver to block registration consists of a local official refusing to accept a new association's founding documents, or accepting these papers but refusing to issue the receipt, even though the law doesn't give the official that option. This also occurs when a registered association notifies authorities, in compliance with the law, of changes in its executive body or bylaws.

Associations that have not been registered operate in a legal limbo and under a range of constraints. They cannot file lawsuits or legally sponsor gatherings on public thoroughfares, and face barriers in renting office premises, opening a bank account, and participating in government-sponsored activities.

The affected associations include groups advocating Sahrawi rights, Amazigh (Berber) rights, and scores of civic associations headed by members of Adl wa al-Ihsan, the country's largest Islamist opposition movement. The Moroccan Association for Human Rights (AMDH) reports that officials in 14 towns and cities have refused to accept the paperwork submitted by the group's local branches. The widespread occurrence of these refusals, and the similarity of the practices of local administrators across the country indicates that these practices emanate from high-level policy to weaken associations that the authorities deem objectionable or suspect.

The El-Ayoun-based ASVDH, founded by former political prisoners and victims of forced disappearance, is a human rights-monitoring organization. When it first submitted the founding documents in May 2005, the “bacha,” a local Interior Ministry official, refused to accept them, prompting the association to file suit in the Agadir administrative court. In September 2006, the court ruled that the bacha had exceeded his legal powers by refusing to accept the ASVDH file. The bacha appealed and continued to refuse to accept the papers. His appeal was rejected in December 2008 on the grounds that he had missed the deadline for filing it.

Despite the definitive court ruling, the administration persisted in refusing to grant the ASVDH a receipt and made clear that the association's perceived political orientation was the cause. For example, in 2007, then-governor of al-Ayoun-Boujdour-Seguia al-Hamra M'hammed Drif told Human Rights Watch, “The problem is that their founding statutes do not respect the Constitution of Morocco…They must first of all renounce the Polisario line,” a reference to the Western Sahara liberation movement, the Polisario Front.

But on March 10, 2015, the El-Ayoun bacha phoned Brahim Dahane, the ASVDH president, to tell him the provisional registration receipt was ready. Around the same time, authorities announced that 11 other associations, including another in Western Sahara, the little-known El-Ghad Human Rights Association, would get their receipts.

However, Dahane was out of Western Sahara at the time and ended up going abroad for medical treatment. It was not until June 22 that the ASVDH received its provisional receipt.

As of August 21 – the expiration of the 60-day period for government objections – the ASVDH had received no notification of such objections and is now presumably definitively registered. Authorities should now deliver the group's final receipt specified in the law's article 5, Human Rights Watch said, noting that while the final receipt is not required for an association to be legally registered, the lack of that receipt in practice creates impediments for an association when dealing with officials and private businesses.

Meanwhile, authorities have blocked a number of other Western-Sahara based organizations from registering, including the Sahrawi League for the Defense of Human Rights and Protection of Natural Resources, the Smara section of the AMDH, and the El-Ayoun section of the Moroccan Human Rights Commission.

As far as Human Rights Watch has been able to determine, Moroccan officials did not publicly explain their change in policy toward the ASVDH. However, the National Human Rights Council (CNDH), a state body that reports to the king, told Human Rights Watch it had long urged authorities to register associations that had complied with the legal formalities. In addition, some of Morocco's allies, including the US, had urged Morocco to legalize human rights organizations in El-Ayoun.

“Morocco has broken a longstanding taboo by legally recognizing an association whose name refers to grave violations committed by the Moroccan State against Sahrawis,” Whitson said. “But the proof of the change will be whether that group – and scores of associations still in legal limbo – will have greater freedom to pursue their peaceful activities legally and without restrictions.”

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