US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton should urge Morocco’s new chief of government Abdelilah Benkirane to lead the process of revising laws that impose prison terms for peaceful expression, Human Rights Watch said. Clinton should also urge Moroccan authorities to free leading journalist Rachid Nini, who is serving a one-year sentence for articles he wrote.
On July 1, Moroccan voters approved a new constitution that contains strong affirmations of human rights, including freedom of expression and of the press. On July 29, Clinton welcomed the referendum “as an important step toward democratic reform.”
However, Moroccan authorities continue to punish critical speech by applying the many repressive provisions of the press and penal code that seem to be incompatible with the spirit of the new constitution.
“Having praised Morocco’s 2011 constitution, Secretary Clinton should now urge authorities to revise both laws and practices so that they are in harmony with that constitution,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director of Human Rights Watch.
Among the laws that violate both the spirit of the new constitution and Morocco’s obligations under article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights is the press code’s article 41, which provides prison terms of up to five years for speech that “undermines the Islamic religion, the monarchical regime, or [Morocco’s] territorial integrity,” or that is offensive toward “His Majesty the King, and the royal princes and princesses.”
Article 263 of the penal code provides prison terms for “gravely offending” public officials. Article 266 provides prison terms for “insulting” the judiciary or discrediting its rulings or attempting to influence the courts. Rachid Nini is currently serving a one-year sentence on these and other charges related to his columns in al-Masa’ newspaper.
Human rights activist Chekib el-Khayari served most of a three-year sentencefor “gravely insulting state institutions,” also under penal code article 263, after he accused certain Moroccan officials of complicity in narcotics trafficking. Authorities pardoned el-Khayari last year.
Articles such as these seem to contradict the constitution’s affirmation in article 25 that “freedom of thought, opinion and expression in all its forms is guaranteed,” and in article 28 that “Press freedom is guaranteed and cannot be restricted by any form of prior censorship.”
In addition, authorities continue to prosecute several Moroccans for having distributed fliers in November 2011 urging a boycott of the legislative elections held that month.
“The constitution raised the bar high on human rights,” said Whitson. “What’s needed now is the political will to apply its principles to closing down the repressive legal arsenal that authorities use to curb critical expression.”