Morocco urged to address torture allegations

Morocco urged to address torture allegations
In-depth: Human rights groups say Moroccan police are still brutally dispersing demonstrations and torturing protesters in the Rif region, despite a largely successful PR campaign to whitewash government oppression.
6 min read
13 September, 2017
Protests have been held across Morocco for protesters killed during demontrations [AFP]
Human rights groups have called on Morocco's King Mohammed VI to address accusations of torture against detained protestors in the Rif region

Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have obtained evidence pointing at police brutality against protestors during last year's popular demonstrations in the Rif region, which they claim has been ignored by the government.  

Protests initially erupted in the Rif region in October 2016, when fishmonger Mouhcine Fikri was crushed to death inside a refuse truck as he tried to recover goods that authorities had confiscated. Five eyewitnesses claimed a police officer ordered Fikri's death.

Thousands of Moroccans have since taken to the streets to protest against government corruption and what is perceived as the economic and social neglect of the Rif region. The current Hirak - or movement - also calls for a serious inquiry into Fikri's death.

Human Rights Watch says the protests are mostly peaceful, with some exceptions - mostly stone-throwing. 

Veneer of reform

Mohammad VI addressed the increasing unrest in al-Hoceima, a key Rif city, during a recent television appearance. The king praised security forces for using "restraint and commitment to the rule of law" in the face of protests.  

Yet Human Rights Watch on Tuesday slammed what they call the king's "whitewashing" of police brutality against demonstrators.  

"The king's unconditional praise of the security forces despite the allegations against them will only encourage the belief that those who abuse detainees will never face any consequences," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch.

Morocco's foreign office has yet to reply to requests for comment for this report, but government spokesperson Mustapha el-Khalfi said last week that Morocco was preparing an official response to the HRW report: 

"In Morocco, the judicial authority is independent. When it receives complaints about alleged torture, it immediately initiates investigations​," he said.

Human Rights Watch examined a 62-page court judgement documenting around 32 cases of detainees being accused of excessive violence in the protests.  

The defendants insisted the police coerced them into signing documents confessing to their "crimes" without being allowed to read the charges. The court dismissed their claims.  

Twenty-three of the defendants also claimed they were beaten by police during their arrests and at the police station, citing wounds they had suffered.

While the court investigated their injuries, the examination was more focused on providing care rather than determining if their conditions reflected abuse from the authorities, two defence lawyers told Human Rights Watch.

The NGO said that this refusal to order forensic medical examinations violates Morocco's agreement in the convention against torture, and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, which entails that authorities must carry out impartial investigations into torture allegations if a sufficient case is presented.  

The National Human Rights Council compiled an independent report about the detainees, prepared by two-high-level forensic doctors. The report indicated that the defendants suffered significant levels of abuse.

Twenty-five of the 34 detainees told the doctors that they were beaten - sometimes severely - slapped and punched in the face, kicked, clubbed with batons, police helmets, walkie-talkies and a stapler - both on the head and other parts of the body. 
The problem with torture in Morocco is that there's virtually no accountability
- Sirine Rached, Amnesty International
The doctors concluded that the examination could validate the defendants' claims of abuse by the authorities.  

"The problem with torture in Morocco is that there's virtually no accountability. This [recent] case is a golden opportunity to change that because evidence has been collected and recorded, which is unusual," Sirine Rached, Morocco and Western Sahara researcher at Amnesty International told The New Arab. 

"However, no official investigation has been announced and no official forensic medical examinations in line with the Istanbul Protocol have been conducted," she added.

"It is essential that authorities at the highest-level signal their commitment to hold accountable police officers who torture or otherwise ill-treat people in their custody, and that courts adequately investigate suspected cases of torture, and hold perpetrators to account, as Moroccan law allows."

Rached also said a detained protester was now under investigation for "falsely reporting" in a Casablanca court that he was tortured, but that there was no review of his claims in the first place.  

"If charged and tried, he risks imprisonment - for reporting a human rights violation to a court of law. This is absurd, and could well scare other torture survivors into silence," said Rached.  

Police violence

This all follows previous reports of abuse against detainees. In June, de-facto Hirak leader Nasser Zefzafi complained of police violence and torture after being detained following mostly peaceful demonstrations in the Rif region in May. While in custody, police officers allegedly threatened to rape his elderly mother in front of him.

Despite requesting a medical examination to prove he was beaten by the police, no response was made to his plea, one of Zefzafi's lawyers said.  

Amnesty International reported in August that 66 detainees suffered from police violence. Protesters suffered brutal beatings, rape threats, torture, and other abuses, sometimes forcing them to "confess" to "crimes". Yet no investigation was made into their complaints of torture either.  
Tens of activists have been beaten violently and systematically upon arrest, as if security forces had some sort of carte blanche
Ahmed Benchemsi, Human Rights Watch
"If Morocco is serious about eradicating torture, it must investigate suspected cases of torture among Rif protesters and other detainees, but it also must put in place strong safeguards," Rachid said. "It is time to guarantee the right for all suspects to have lawyers present during police interrogation, a moment where they are especially vulnerable to abuse."

Yet some question the government's desire to tackle torture and similar abuses.

Ahmed Benchemsi, Human Rights Watch's advocacy and communications director for the MENA region, told The New Arab that Moroccan authorities usually minimise instances of police violence by calling them "isolated acts".

"But the handling of the Rif protests tells another story. Tens of activists have been beaten violently and systematically upon arrest, as if security forces had some sort of carte blanche. King Mohammed VI's praise of the way the police acted in al-Hoceima will only reinforce the general feeling of impunity," Benchemsi said.

"Overall, this violent Rif episode poses the question of whether the Moroccan monarchy's post-Arab spring pledges of reform - to eradicate torture, reform the security governance, etc - amount to anything. Or was it just empty talk to whether the storm?" 

Torture against detainees has long been an issue in Morocco. United Nations investigator Juan Mendez in 2012 urged Morocco to end the act which he concluded had been occurring "for decades".

Amnesty International recommends that detainees in Morocco must have access to lawyers upon arrest and during interrogation. Forensic exams must be offered by courts when requested or signs of abuse are noticed.

Judges must also discard police "confessions" as evidence until they are satisfied they were not obtained through force or coercion, in accordance with Moroccan law.