Morocco and Western Sahara: End prosecution of activists under new health emergency law

The Moroccan authorities must stop exploiting a flawed health emergency law to prosecute human rights activists, citizen journalists and others for peacefully criticizing the government’s handling of the COVID-19 crisis, Amnesty International said today.

It is not a crime to question the government’s response to the pandemic or call out the shortfalls of its approach

Amna Guellali

On 23 March, Parliament passed a new Law (No. 2.220.292), declaring a health emergency and setting penalties of a three-month prison sentence and a 1300 Dirhams fine (around 134 USD) for anyone breaching “orders and decisions taken by public authorities” and for anyone “obstructing” through “writings, publications or photos” those decisions.

Since its adoption, the authorities have used the new law to prosecute at least five human rights activists and citizen journalists, accusing them of “incitement to violate the authorities’ decisions during the health emergency.”

“The Moroccan authorities’ introduction of prison sentences to punish those who break confinement or curfew is a disproportionate one. In all cases, this flawed law should never be used to silence the voices of those daring to criticize the government’s measures and handling of the pandemic. It is not a crime to question the government’s response to the pandemic or call out the shortfalls of its approach,” said Amna Guellali, Amnesty International’s Deputy Director for the Middle East and North Africa.

“Given the elevated risks of transmission of COVID-19 in prisons and other places of detention, adding to the prison population will only further compound the public health problems caused by the pandemic. Individuals should not be imprisoned solely for breaching restrictions imposed in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic.”

In just two months since the adoption of the new law, the Moroccan public prosecution prosecuted 91,623 people between for breaking the new state of health emergency law and for other crimes, as per their 22 May statement. Amongst those prosecuted, at least 558 are still remaining in detention solely for breaking the state of emergency as per a 22 May official statement.

In all cases, this flawed law should never be used to silence the voices of those daring to criticize the government’s measures and handling of the pandemic.

Amna Guellali

Amnesty International has documented the cases of five human rights activists and citizen journalists arrested between April and May 2020 for online and social media posts criticizing the way local authorities handled the distribution of aid amid COVID-19.

All of them were also charged under the health emergency law as well as Penal Code provision for “offending public institutions” and some of them with “spreading false information,” neither of which are recognizable offenses under international law. Amnesty International reviewed all the posts presented as evidence against these activists and found nothing to suggest they incite violence, hatred or discrimination and determined that they were therefore fully protected by freedom of expression.

Speech-related prosecutions

On 17 April, police arrested Mohamed Bouzrou and Mohamed Chejii, citizen journalists who are also the administrators of a Facebook page named Fazaz24, which has some 29,000 followers. The two are currently detained in a prison in Khenifra, northern Morocco. A third administrator of the same page, Lahssen Lemrabti, was also arrested on 19 April and released the next day but the prosecution against him is ongoing with a trial date set for the three today, 8 June.

The three are being prosecuted for two Facebook posts they published on Fazaz 24 on 3 and 4 April, their lawyer told Amnesty International. The first post, which was shared on other media outlets, is a video of an old man, thought to be a taxi driver from Khenifra in Northern Central of the country, desperately seeking help from the local authorities saying he is one of many workers prevented by the lockdown from earning and that he did not know to whom he could turn to for help The second post reported on the “cronyism” and unequal distribution of aid among Khenifra inhabitants by local authorities during the COVID-19 crisis.

On 27 April, police in Nador, a city in the North-eastern Rif region of Morocco arrested Omar Naji, the local representative of leading human rights group l’Association Marocaine des Droits de l’Homme (AMDH), and released him the next day on a bail of 10,000 dirhams (US$1,000). His charges relate to a Facebook post on 20 April in which he criticized the way authorities in Nador were confiscating merchandise from unauthorized vendors to distribute to local associations during COVID-19. The first session of his trial was set for 2 June but rescheduled to 14 July.

Similarly, on 15 May, police arrested activist Abdessadek Benazzouzi from the city of Bni Tadjite, in Figuig Province, Oriental, Morocco in relation to two Facebook posts. The first one published on 13 May reported on what Benazzouzi considered to be “human rights violations” including “cronyism” in the distribution of aid amid COVID-19, the lack of public services and the marginalization of the youth in the distribution of indemnities. The second one published two days later was about locals asking for more help from the authorities and criticising them for what he called a state-response based on “repression” and “intimidation”. Benazzouzi’s trial is scheduled for 18 June.

“Amnesty International calls on the Moroccan authorities to immediately release Mohammed Bouzrou, Mohamed Chejii and all those detained solely for expressing their views. Charges against all those being prosecuted unlawfully for breaking the state of emergency must be dropped,” said Amna Guellali.

As of 3 June, 7922 confirmed cases and 206 deaths have been reported in Morocco.

The organization calls on authorities to ensure that enforcement of the health Emergency law does not arbitrarily restrict people from speaking about or reporting on matters that affect them, including online, in violation of their rights to freedom of expression. This includes criticising official policies and how authorities enforce the anti COVID 19 measures.

“The most effective response to a health crisis is rooted in the respect of human rights and policies that build trust and solidarity. When people are empowered and supported to comply voluntarily with the required public health measures, they are more likely to cooperate with the authorities and change their behavior than through the threat of coercive measures.” Said Amna Guellali