Morocco and Western Sahara: Government smear campaign against Amnesty International underlines intolerance of scrutiny
The Moroccan authorities’ attacks on Amnesty International’s credibility, and the orchestrated smear campaign against the Amnesty Morocco office in Rabat, shows how intolerant they have become of scrutiny and legitimate criticism of their human rights record, Amnesty International said today.
This smear campaign and the false claims made against Amnesty International are an attempt to discredit solid human rights research which has uncovered a series of unlawful surveillance incidents using NSO Group products
The government response come just over a week after the organization published a report on 22 June exposing how NSO Group spyware was used by the authorities to place independent journalist Omar Radi under unlawful surveillance. Amnesty International yesterday sent a letter to the Moroccan government standing by its research findings and providing further detail of its research methodology.
"This smear campaign and the false claims made against Amnesty International are an attempt to discredit solid human rights research which has uncovered a series of unlawful surveillance incidents using NSO Group products. Instead of engaging constructively with the findings in our report, the authorities are choosing to go on the attack against the messenger," said Heba Morayef, Amnesty International's Middle East and North Africa Director.
“This is not the first time efforts have been made to undermine Amnesty’s work and coincides with a deepening repression within the country. Dozens of human rights activists, independent journalists and protesters are currently in prison and the authorities have taken advantage of the COVID-19 pandemic over the past months to prosecute more critics.”
The Moroccan government has falsely accused Amnesty International of failing to offer them the right of reply on the findings of the report, and of fabricating facts and failing to provide evidence to back up the claims made within it. Unnamed government sources have told the Moroccan media that the government intends to shut down the Amnesty Morocco office in Rabat.
Instead of engaging constructively with the findings in our report, the authorities are choosing to go on the attack against the messenger
On the contrary, Amnesty International notified the Moroccan authorities on 9 June, through an official letter sent via email to five officials at the Ministry of Human Rights, of its intention to publish the report two weeks prior to publication. The same letter invited the government to provide comment for inclusion in the report. However, no response was received.
Amnesty International’s evidence was gathered through our technical analysis of Moroccan journalist Omar Radi’s iPhone that revealed traces of “network injection” attacks. This was in line with the October 2019 investigation by Amnesty International, which detailed the targeting of Moroccan human rights defenders Maati Monjib, including through network injection attacks, and Abdessadak El Bouchattaoui using Pegasus spyware, surveillance technology produced by the company NSO Group.
NSO Group sells its Pegasus spyware exclusively to law enforcement and government agencies. In addition, the technical evidence the organization’s researchers extracted from Omar Radi's phone clearly indicate that Pegasus was installed with a particular form of digital attack identified in our reports as a "network injection," which required leverage over mobile operators in the country to wiretap Omar's mobile internet connection, which only a government could authorize.
This is not the first time efforts have been made to undermine Amnesty’s work and coincides with a deepening repression within the country
Amnesty International’s findings are aligned to those of other organizations such as Privacy International and Citizen Lab who have documented the Moroccan government’s purchase and unlawful use of surveillance technology.
Omar Radi investigated after report publication
In addition to the smear campaign against Amnesty International, on 24 June, Omar Radi, the journalist named in the Amnesty report as having been subjected to unlawful surveillance by the Moroccan authorities, was summoned to appear before the National Brigade of Judicial Police. Omar was summoned again on 2 July for the second time.
Omar Radi is a courageous journalist who has worked for several national and international media outlets, including Atlantic Radio and TelQuel. His work has investigated the links between corporate and political interests in Morocco and touched upon questions of corruption and other human rights abuses in Morocco. In March, a court sentenced him to a fine and a suspended prison sentence for a Tweet in which he criticized the conviction of Hirak activists.
Government obstruction of Amnesty’s human rights work
This is not the first time that Amnesty International’s work in Morocco has been hampered. In June 2015, two Amnesty International researchers who were investigating the situation for migrants and refugees were expelled from the country despite assurances from the government that the organization could conduct missions with simple notification.
The Moroccan authorities have a history of dishing out punitive measures to distract from their dismal human rights record.
The authorities also blacklisted an Amnesty International staff member who had authored a 2014 report on torture in the country, banning the researcher from travelling to Morocco both for fieldwork and in a personal capacity. In September of the same year, the Moroccan authorities also banned an Amnesty International youth camp.
“The Moroccan authorities have a history of dishing out punitive measures to distract from their dismal human rights record. The irony is that in doing so they are confirming precisely what Amnesty International’s research over the past months has uncovered: the government’s zero tolerance of free expression,” said Heba Morayef.