By Simeon Lancaster
SALE, Morocco – Cracking a smile, Mohamed Chakhmane, 32, kicks a pebble into a muddy hole in an old concrete foundation next to his home in Sale’s Sehb El Kaid slum, as he recalls his participation in pro-democracy protests in 2011. His demands included improved housing and an end to corruption a struggle that Chakhmane first got involved with 13 years ago.
At that time, he turned to the Moroccan Association of Human Rights for help.
But these days, Chakhmane prefers to stay away from the Association, which is facing a campaign of harassment and intimidation by the government such as blocked meetings and denied operating permits.
“This was a mistake we made,” he said about asking the AMDH for help. He believes his alliance with the Association made the Moroccan government less likely to assist his efforts to provide improved housing for slum dwellers.
In the past two years, the Moroccan government has become increasingly repressive of dissenting voices by targeting independent press and non-government organizations monitoring human rights. In June, Morocco expelled two Amnesty International staffers, and a full advertising page in the Wall Street Journal in September displayed a letter from Minister of Communication Mustapha Khalfi demanding that Human Rights Watch suspend all activity in Morocco until talks are held. The brunt of the crackdown is felt by local organizations such as AMDH, the largest human rights NGO in Morocco and one familiar with government harassment.
“The Moroccan authorities don’t like this,” said Mohamed Elboukili, a full-time AMDH employee and one of the founders of the organization. The AMDH documents and publicizes what they call cases of human rights abuse in Morocco. His desk, in a corner of AMDH’s Rabat headquarters, is cluttered with documents and a book of contacts from across Morocco. The walls are covered with evocative posters with French and Arabic text surrounding images such as a pair of chained hands – a symbol of torture. “They want us to be a certain kind of NGO that shuts eyes and is silent about these things. We can’t do this.”
AMDH, founded in 1979, has a reputation in Morocco of being the first ones to document and condemn abuses, being on the forefront of the fight for civil rights in many ways such as connecting people to their network of lawyers, engaging high profile individuals and campaigning with people in the streets, such as in 2011. In the past year, the government has blocked 95 public meetings, denied permit renewals for 36 sections forcing them to operate illegally and even went so far as to raid their Rabat headquarters with police in February.
Elboukili, along with many other activists, was sent to prison for his involvement with AMDH under the reign of Hassan II, the current King’s father who ruled with an iron hand from 1961 until his death in 1999. Now, things are the worst they ever have been under Morocco’s current king, Mohammed VI, according to Elboukili, impacting not only AMDH members, but anyone who is associated with the organization.
“In the past two years the Moroccan authorities have given new messages about harassing and not tolerating our activities,” Elboukili said. “It’s intolerance. There is now a new intolerance from the Moroccan authorities for different ideas, for … freedom of speech.”
Halima Morsli, 50, is the receptionist at the Rabat AMDH headquarters – an office filled with teachers, lawyers and full-time volunteers. Part of Morsli’s job is to meet with strangers who walk in to the office from the street seeking help from the Association. She listens to hundreds of stories of rights violations from Moroccans and documents them to try not only to solve their problem but also to simply give them a place to be heard.
Morsli is one of over 12,000 AMDH volunteers across Morocco who are trained to monitor civil liberties, the core of the organization’s mission to defend universal human rights freedom of speech, fair trials and no torture by issuing reports can be used by the local and international communities to pressure the government to protect human rights.
“Often we have people come in who are crying,” Morsli said when talking about how she listens to so many tragic stories every day, many of them cases of domestic abuse. “There’s a lot of violence, but in every [case]. I adapt. I adapt to the work.”
Morsli says she’ll never forget case from three years ago. A girl was violated by an older man, and when her parents went to the police, their case was simply filed away and no action was taken. AMDH brought a report to the Ministry of Justice calling for action. No action was taken.
The child committed suicide.
Morocco is currently ranked as only partly free by Freedom House while neighboring Tunisia is ranked as free and Algeria and Egypt are classified as not free. Historically, Morocco is one of the few countries in the Middle East North Africa region, recently accompanied by Tunisia, that has had an open relationship with international human rights groups. Violence against human rights workers has resulted in limiting their activities in Egypt and Libya. Human rights work in Algeria and Mauritania is limited by restricting access to visas which limits access to the ground and lack of personnel.
In response to the pro-democracy protests in 2011, Morocco’s King Mohammed VI delivered a promising constitution offering liberal reforms, expanded freedoms, civil rights and stating that Morocco follows international human rights ethics that don’t conflict with national law. Four years later, many of those promises have fallen flat, but Morocco is still seen by some as a model in the region, according to Driss Maghraoui, a historian and professor of international relations at Al Akhawayn University in Ifrane. With the increased pressure on civil liberties, however, Maghraoui sees Morocco sliding even further away from a liberal image. He believes the Moroccan state is attempting to regain some of the control and fear it lost during the 2011 protests.
“We have these violations of human rights even though we have a constitution that speaks against that,” Maghraoui said. “The Moroccan state seems to be somewhat confident because they are not Syria or Libya. There is a certain truth to the fact that Morocco is clearly not Syria or Libya but that should not be basis for violating human rights or going back, so I think this is the problem. The Moroccan state does one step forward in order to go two steps backward.”
The government often uses the tactic of closing – at the last minute — the venues where human rights meetings are scheduled, according to Elboukili. He says this prevents many gatherings such as press conferences, trainings and protests.
“They’re very clever about this,” Elboukili said. “They don’t give us the opportunity to change plans. Then it’s too late.”
Experts see the crackdown in Morocco as part of a larger trend in the region that is starting to increasingly concern the international community.
“There’s definitely a trend in the region that things are moving in a direction of being less open, and Morocco is now part of that trend,” said Eric Goldstein, Human Rights Watch deputy director for the Middle East and North Africa in Skype interview. “These governments in most cases are becoming increasingly repressive, and part of that is they don’t want witnesses to that oppression.”
In its letter to Human Rights Watch, Morocco accuses the organization of denying “any progress made by the kingdom.” Similar accusations have been made toward AMDH. Goldstein said that it has opened opportunities to hold talks with the government, but there has been no response.
The Minister of Communication was unavailable for comment.
The operations of AMDH and similar organizations inside Morocco are vital for every Moroccan citizen, victims of human rights abuses or not, said Elboukili.
“If they continue to hurt us and not permit our activities it will be a sign and indicator that respect of human rights especially here in Morocco will be gone,” he said. “We need the culture of human rights, especially in this society where we are talking about terrorism, fundamentalism. We believe strongly that helping the culture of human rights will help a lot in giving young people a chance to talk about values, universality, equality, which work against fundamentalism.”
Aymane Alaoui contributed to reporting.