mercredi 22 octobre 2014

Morocco Chokes Human Rights NGOs, Ups Activist Prison Time

...and jails more amid preparations to host the World Forum on Human Rights 

Since the country’s independence, Morocco’s monarchy has built a massive codependent institution: The Makhzen*. This complex top-down system is now aggressively backpedaling from promises of reform made by King Mohammed VI in his speech following the February 20th, 2011 mass protests.

The regime is adopting stark retrogressive measures reminiscent of the 70s and 80s, when the late King Hassan II repressed and jailed dissidents. While Morocco is preparing to host the 6th World Forum on Human Rights in Marrakech in November, the ministry of interior continues to stifle protests, ban human rights NGOs activities, and jail pro-democracy February 20th Movement activists.

Two days ago, Wafae Charaf, a Feb20 member, human rights activist and law student from Tangier has seen her prison sentence for “false allegations of torture” stretched to 2 years by the court of appeals, as the Makhzen turned a deaf ear to international calls for her liberation

Yesterday in Rabat, 9 unemployed graduates were sentenced to16 months of prison for protesting and blocking trains for half an hour last April.

Just a few days before, a young rapper known as Mr. Crazy was charged with distorting Morocco’s national anthem, and sentenced to 3 months in prison. In the beginning of his song “Hyati Na9sa”   (meaning “my life is incomplete” in Moroccan Darija), he barely quotes the two first verses and his interpretation of each one: “Nursery of the free, in the anthem, is but a word, and where lights rise and shine, is for me just a dream”. This is not the first rapper the Moroccan regime jails. Mouad Belrhouat l7a9ed, has been in and out of prison, arrested each time he releases an album. In solidarity with the recently jailed artist, netizens have launched a twitter campaign via the hashtag: #Free_Mr_Crazy  

This wave of repression takes aim at independent civil society organizations as well. On September 26th, the authorities of the capital city of Rabat prohibited the Moroccan Association of Human Rights (AMDH) and the NGO “Freedom Now” from organizing a conference, which was set to tackle issues related to democracy and media. A written decision of the prohibition was delivered to organizers notifying them late, on the eve of the event.

AMDH President Ahmed El Hayej told the Moroccan Daily “Akhbar Al Yawm” that the prohibition was part of a “series of restrictions” that the NGO had been facing “for several months”, referring to a blanket ban of 16 activities by authorities, including the “Freedom of Expression and Human Rights in the Digital Age” conference organized in collaboration with Morocco's DigitalRights Association and Privacy International at the end of August, 2014.

The Makhzen not only seeks to neutralize activities of existing human rights NGOs, it also hinders initiatives to expand positive efforts within the country. The independent journalists and civil society activists of “Freedom Now”, who were not given permission by the authorities to legally set up their NGO, had taken legal action, but the case was declined by the administrative court of Rabat on the 22nd  of July, 2014, stating that they were not a legal entity. This vicious cycle shuns the much needed constructive criticism of the Makhzen, labeling critics a minority of individuals with no legal legitimacy. 

As a response to the bans, human rights activists took to the streets on October 15th, after AMDH called for a protest in several cities, including Rabat, where a few individuals from the shady “alliance of Moroccan royalists”- who had been caught by a French media outlet in 2011 falsely pretending to be independent from the regime, sought to trump the event with their presence. However, their negligible number and known links to the Makhzen only reinforced the idea that the regime wants to be present everywhere and upstage every event, even peaceful protests.

The ministry of interior, a Makhzen stronghold, seems to act independently from a government swamped in administrative affairs, and unable to interfere with palace instructions or carry out deep reforms without clashing with the king’s protégés.

The PJD-lead coalition government (Party for Justice and Development, a conservative political party with a washed-out Islamic ideology), through its leader Abdelilah Benkirane, had agreed to shield the monarchy from an uprising during the 2011 national protests, by stopping PJD members from swelling the ranks of February 20th movement.

Now a few years in office as head of the government, with not enough prerogatives and no control over the shadow government – the king’s cabinet, Benkirane admitted yesterday to being overwhelmed: “I am tired, I am starting to forget a number of things”. He had repeated on several occasions during his tenure that he was but an employee, and that this was the king’s government.

As undemocratic as it might seem coming from a representative of the people, this statement was not used exclusively by Benkirane. When the minister for planning and housing, Nabil Benabdallah, recently appeared on National television debating with Driss Lachgar, a leader from the “leftist opposition” party: Socialist Union of Popular Forces (USFP), the former boasted: “We are the government of his majesty”, to which the latter responded, outraged: “What are you suggesting? We also are the opposition of his majesty!”.

With this weakened, façade political scene, where projects of political parties that are likely to attract bold politicians are filtered and rejected the same way NGOs like “Freedom Now” are shunned, incoherence becomes widespread, especially when members of the majority turn into a feeble opposition.

In an article he wrote earlier this month, member of the Secretariat of the PJD Abdelali Hamiddine wrote: “there is no space for tolerance by the state authorities towards expressions of protest or human rights organization except within the narrow interpretation of the law”

Beyond this indication of a garbled political scene, a particularly confusing intervention from the Minister of Justice and Freedoms showed that fierce battle opposes the PJD to the ministry of interior.

When responding to a question in the parliament shortly after the authorities’ ban of AMDH activities, Mustapha Ramid warned of retrogression to past repressive ways using a very strong tone. He added: “those behind this ban work outside the legitimacy of law”.

The PJD has thus agreed to being the Makhzen’s shield, subdued to the monarchy, yet intermittently takes on the role of the opposition while being the majority within the coalition government, blaming shortcomings on the shadow government. Similarly, the Palace accepts to play this game of hiding behind one another, as it allows it to assign its blunders to representatives’ incompetence. All but the citizens are winners in this process, as discrepant policymaking, inequitable wealth distribution, and an opaque justice system hinder freedoms and progress towards people’s expectations since the 2011 mass protests.

Unable and unwilling to risk going after the wealthy and the powerful, the government dug into the easy, but burdened citizens’ pockets instead. Results from recent poll conducted by the Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies has shown that 70% of Moroccans evaluate the overall government’s performance negatively with regards to curbing unemployment, and rendering basic services and infrastructure such as healthcare and roads, available to citizens.

The public and unions recoil to the austerity measures implemented by the government with threats of a national strike steered by the largest unions. A date of the strike is set for October 29th, which could include both the public and private sector, going as far as shutting down water, electricity, and closing down banks in the country for the day.

Keeping a divided society on life-support, with the right balance between proliferation of problems across the nation for the King to intervene authoritatively, and exhibits of bling-development, has been the Makhzen’s tricky task for survival. The first, however, remains the top priority carried out by the ministry of interior, because solving problems in a sustainable way means a stronger, more assertive civil society, bolder politicians, all of which are perceived by the Makhzen as the beginning of its demise.

With the rampant public dissatisfaction, no quality education, independent judiciary, or social justice in sight - all demands of the February 20th movement, the Makhzen’s repressive approach is due to backfire.

*The Makhzen refers to the ruling authority of Morocco. It is responsible for keeping all powers in the hands of the monarch and ensuring order/obedience of subjects in the country. The Makhzen encompasses the king’s cabinet, protégés, officials, wealthy/prominent figures, the ministry of interior and the military, all of which are under the command of the King of Morocco himself. The Makhzen’s security apparatus uses targeted surveillance against politically active individuals through district and city employees (mokaddem, cheikh, qaed…), internet surveillance, as well as courts and judges. This ensures that trials of outspoken critics of the regime are kept under full control of the regime. The makhzen’s weapon of choice is soft power to co-opt rather than coerce, through state-run print and broadcast media -and now increasingly through social networks. While soft power is prevalent, violent repression of protests, recurrent arrests on fabricated criminal charges, and intermittent jail sentences are systematically used against activists and independent journalists when attempts to co-opt, intimidate, and/or sabotage work and family life fail. 

A Makhzeni refers to either a policeman/soldier, or a person known for their obedience to the King and their zeal in serving within the Makhzen.

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