After four hours of questioning by a succession of policemen in a nondescript office on the third floor of Rabat’s central police station, a senior officer pushed a form across the table. “Please sign this,” he said handing me a pen. It was an expulsion order for my immediate removal from Morocco on the grounds that I posed a ‘threat to public order’.
I had been picked up at around noon from my hotel and my telephone and passport had been confiscated. A few hundred miles away my Amnesty International colleague who had been researching human rights situation of migrants and refugees, had also been held by the police and questioned. Later that evening we were driven to separate airports and put on flights out of the country.
By expelling Amnesty International staff Morocco joins a long and ignominious list of countries that have sent out staff packing ranging from Eritrea to Indonesia. The catalogue of countries which has refused Amnesty International entry is still longer. This month alone an Amnesty International expert who was due to speak at a conference in UAE was turned away at the airport and two staff members who were about to launch a report in Azerbaijan were informed that they would not be welcome in the country.
Our expulsion on Thursday was not the first time that Amnesty International’s work in Morocco has been hampered. In the early 1990’s Morocco imposed a blanket ban on the organization and although this was lifted in 1993 the relationship with the Moroccan authorities deteriorated markedly after we launched our Stop Torture Campaign last year. This detailed Morocco’s use of torture and found that, despite being explicitly criminalized since 2006 and prohibited by the country’s new 2011 constitution, torture continues, with perpetrators enjoying virtual total impunity.
Unsurprisingly our findings were not welcomed by the government. The Moroccan authorities – in particular the Ministry of Interior – have become less and less tolerant of scrutiny not only by local and international human rights groups, but also by Moroccan journalists.
The Moroccan authorities – in particular the Ministry of Interior – have become less and less tolerant of scrutiny not only by local and international human rights groups, but also by Moroccan journalistsJohn Dalhuisen
Groups critical of the governments human rights record have been facing mounting restrictions on their activities since the second half of 2014. The Moroccan authorities have banned several public events and internal meetings by various human rights groups. These restrictions followed remarks by the Interior Minister that “some domestic associations and entities work under the cover of defending human rights”, but are in fact trying to “drive some of the international organizations to take hostile positions towards Morocco’s interests”.
In recent months, two investigative journalism events were banned by Morocco’s Interior Ministry. Meanwhile, Hicham Mansouri, journalist and Amnesty International prisoner of conscience, is currently serving a 10-month prison term for complicity in adultery, but we fear he is being punished for his work.
We had travelled to Morocco to investigate the treatment of refugees and migrants trying to enter the fenced-off Spanish enclaves of Melilla and Ceuta. On these borders there have been reports of and unlawful pushbacks by Spanish border guards and ill-treatment by Moroccan authorities whose cooperation in migration management the European Union is assiduously courting.
Morocco has promised sweeping – and for the most part – positive changes to its own migration policies, including crucially the creation of a national asylum system. There is much to praise therefore but by preventing AI to conduct our research, the suspicion remains that the treatment of migrants and asylum seekers picked up by Moroccan authorities at the Spanish boarder is not all it should be.
My treatment at the hands of the Moroccan police was polite but firm. As I was led from the police station and into the car waiting to take me to the airport the plain clothed police officer with whom I had spent much of the day shook me by the hand. Looking me steadily in the eye he said, “Morocco will do things our own way. We don’t need people like you coming here and interfering and telling us what to do.”
In the departure lounge, flanked by two police minders, I reflected on the expulsion order that prevents me from returning to the country “indefinitely”. This is a personal sadness of course, but more significantly our expulsion is a symptom the dwindling space for constructive dialogue on the human rights situation in the country.
This article first appeared in Newsweek.