The guilty verdicts and heavy sentences returned in the cases of 53 Hirak protesters in Casablanca must be overturned due to the unfair nature of their trials, Amnesty International said today.
Protest leaders Nasser Zefzafi and Nabil Ahamjik were last night sentenced to 20 years in prison, along with two other protesters, in connection with protests in the Rif region in 2017. Other protesters were given prison sentences ranging from one year to 15 years.
“These convictions are unsafe given the extremely unfair nature of the trials,” said Heba Morayef, Amnesty International’s Middle East and North Africa Director.
“Nasser Zefzafi and others who have been convicted and imprisoned for protesting peacefully for social justice or covering demonstrations online should never have been on trial in the first place. He must be released and his conviction overturned.”
These convictions are unsafe given the extremely unfair nature of the trialsHeba Morayef
Three protesters were sentenced to 15 years in prison, and seven others were sentenced to 10 years in prison. Ten protesters were sentenced to five years in prison and also given a fine of 2,000 Moroccan dirhams (approximately $210 USD). Eight protesters were sentenced to three years imprisonment, 19 to two years imprisonment, and one to one year in prison; all were given the same fine. One other defendant was not sentenced to prison, but was given a fine of 5,000 Moroccan dirhams (approximately $520 USD).
“Those reasonably suspected of responsibility for recognizably criminal offences should be retried in proceedings that full conform to international fair trial standards, or released,” said Heba Morayef.
“Amnesty International also has serious concerns surrounding the nature of the so-called ‘confessions’ submitted as evidence as detainees have described torture and other ill-treatment at the hands of the police during interrogation. The ‘confessions’ extracted under duress should have been excluded from trial proceedings.”
A number of defendants claimed in court that their confessions had been extracted under torture, but the court failed to order an effective investigation into this. On 3 July 2017, detained protester Omar Bouhrass told the investigating judge at the Casablanca Court of Appeals that he had been tortured. According to his lawyer, Bouhrass said that police beat him while ordering him to say “Long live the King”, stripped him of his underwear, broke two of his teeth, and threatened and insulted him following his arrest in Al Hoceima.
In many cases, the prosecution accused most of the defendants of generally “inciting”, “participating” or being “complicit” in “unrest” without providing any evidence of their individual criminal responsibility with regards to any acts of violence. Under international human rights law, participation in an unauthorized demonstration is not in and of itself grounds for imprisonment but must be accompanied by a recognizable criminal offence such as involvement in acts of violence.
Protests against unfair trials
Nasser Zefzafi was on hunger strike from 23 May to 3 June in protest at the unfair nature of the trials and poor conditions of detention. In solidarity, 22 other detainees also began a hunger strike that lasted between four to 19 days. Nasser Zefzafi has been in prolonged and indefinite solitary confinement for over a year.
Rabie Lablak, who is still on hunger strike, called his mother to say goodbye on Saturday 16 June saying that he was ready to die because of the unfairness of the trial. The next day, the prison administration issued a statement denying that Lablak was on hunger strike. However, his lawyer visited him recently and confirmed again that he was still on hunger strike. According to information received by Amnesty International, he has not been seen by a doctor since 14 June.
On 12 June, 49 of the detainees signed a common declaration explaining they were boycotting the trial because they considered it unfair.
Yesterday’s verdict confirmed that the case of journalist Hamid El Mahdaoui, also held in Casablanca, has been separated from that of the other 53 defendants. His trial will resume tomorrow (Thursday 28 June).
Since May 2017, Moroccan security forces have arrested hundreds of protesters, including children and several journalists, over the largely peaceful protests. Those arrested include scores of protesters, activists and bloggers in the Rif, northern Morocco, who protested to demand an end to marginalization of their communities and to call for better access to services in the region.
The Casablanca Court of Appeals brought charges against 54 people in connection with the Rif protest movement, or Hirak in Arabic. Most charges brought against protest leader Nasser Zefzafi and his co-defendants are inconsistent with Morocco’s human rights obligations since they criminalise the peaceful exercise of the rights to freedom of assembly, association and expression.
Protesters described torture and other ill-treatment, including heavy beatings, suffocation, stripping, rape threats and insults, inflicted by police upon arrest and during interrogation, sometimes to force them to “confess” to crimes.
In July last year, the Minister of Justice announced investigations into at least 66 cases of suspected police torture or other ill-treatment of protesters in custody. In Casablanca, 22 of the 54 were submitted to medical examination by a doctor appointed by the investigative judge, but no judicial investigation was open.
Judges also failed to exclude as evidence in the trial statements that the defendants said had been extracted under, in breach of Morocco’s international obligations under international law.