Guilty verdict upheld for student who “offended” Moroccan king

The Marrakesh Court of Appeals in Morocco has upheld a lower court’s guilty verdict against an 18-year-old student for insulting the King. Yassine Bellasal was sentenced to a one-year suspended prison term and a fine of 1,000 dirhams (approximately US$115).

Amnesty International said that the verdict serves to confirm that the monarchy remains a “taboo” topic in Morocco and shed a different light on the image projected by the Moroccan authorities of a state, where respect for human rights has greatly improved.

A number of human rights defenders, journalists and others have been prosecuted in recent years, and in some cases sentenced to prison terms, for peacefully expressing views deemed by the authorities to be critical of or offensive to the King.

Yassine Bellasal was sentenced on 28 September by the Court of First Instance in Marrakesh. In addition to the one year prison term, he was fined 1,000 dirhams.

He was charged with insulting King Mohamed VI 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 FC Barcelona football team.

Arrested at his home in Ait Ourir, 35 kilometres 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 was provisionally released from Boulemharez prison in Marrakesh on 29 October pending the outcome of his appeal.

“Amnesty International has repeatedly called on the Moroccan authorities to lift all impediments to freedom of expression and to act in conformity to 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,” said Diana Eltahawy, North Africa researcher at Amnesty International.

Last year, eight members of the Moroccan Association for Human Rights (Association Marocaine des Droits Humains, AMDH) 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 criticizing the monarchy were chanted. They were pardoned by the King in April this year.

Ahmed Benchemsi, editor of the weekly magazines Nichane and Tel Quel, is facing charges of “undermining the monarchy” after he had published an editorial commenting on a speech by the King.

“Amnesty International is also urging the Moroccan authorities to investigate allegations that Yassine Bellasal was beaten and threatened in police custody following his arrest,” said Diana Eltahawy.