Morocco is a constitutional monarchy with a parliamentary system under which ultimate authority rests with King Mohammed VI, who presides over the Council of Ministers. The king shares executive authority with Head of Government Aziz Akhannouch. According to the constitution, the king appoints the head of government from the political party with the most seats in parliament and approves members of the government nominated by the head of government. Parliamentary elections were held September 8, and observers characterized them as well organized and conducted without significant problems or irregularities.
The security apparatus includes several police and paramilitary organizations with overlapping authority. The National Police Force manages internal law enforcement in cities and reports to the Ministry of Interior. The Auxiliary Forces also report to the Ministry of Interior and support gendarmes and police. The Royal Gendarmerie, which reports to the Administration of National Defense, is responsible for law enforcement in rural regions and on national highways. The judicial police (investigative) branches of both the Royal Gendarmerie and the National Police report to the royal prosecutor and have the power to arrest individuals. Civilian authorities maintained effective control over security forces. Members of the security forces committed some abuses.
Morocco claims the territory of Western Sahara and administers the territory that it controls. The Popular Front for the Liberation of Saguia el Hamra and Rio de Oro (POLISARIO), an organization that seeks the territory’s independence, disputes Morocco’s claim to sovereignty over the territory. Moroccan and POLISARIO forces fought intermittently from 1975, when Spain relinquished colonial authority over the territory, until a 1991 cease-fire and the establishment of a UN peacekeeping mission. On October 6, the UN secretary-general appointed Staffan de Mistura as the new personal envoy for Western Sahara. The UN Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara mandate was renewed on October 29. The POLISARIO withdrew from the cease-fire in November 2020, and since then there have been reports of intermittent indirect fire between Morocco’s Royal Armed Forces and POLISARIO fighters across the 1,700-mile separation barriers (the “berm”).
Significant human rights issues included credible reports of: torture or degrading treatment by some members of the security forces; allegations there were political prisoners; serious restrictions on free expression and media, including criminalization of libel and certain content that criticized Islam, the monarchy, and the government’s position regarding territorial integrity; substantial interference with the freedom of assembly and freedom of association, including surveillance and intimidation of political activists; serious government corruption; and criminalization of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and intersex conduct.
The government took steps to investigate officials who allegedly committed human rights abuses and acts of corruption, but investigations into police, security force, and detention center abuses lacked transparency and frequently encountered long delays and procedural obstacles that contributed to impunity.
Section 1. Respect for the Integrity of the Person
There were reports that the government or its agents committed arbitrary or unlawful killings. On September 8, Youssef Bejjaj was reportedly chased by three police officers for not wearing a helmet on a moped. Bejjaj’s mother claimed he was then beaten to death by plainclothes police officers. On November 17, the National Brigade of the Judicial Police opened an investigation. The police investigation found that the cause of death was due to the collision of Bejjaj’s motorcycle with a police motorcycle. The report stated that the autopsy revealed injuries consistent with a collision and concluded there had been “no use of excessive force” against Bejjaj.
International and local media reported that on November 3, the Royal Armed Forces conducted an airstrike in POLISARIO-controlled territory of Western Sahara using an unmanned aerial vehicle, which killed three Algerian civilian drivers in Bir Lahlou.
There were no reports of disappearances by or on behalf of government authorities during the year.
According to the annual report from the UN Working Group on Enforced Disappearances, from May 2018 to May 2019, the country had 153 outstanding cases of forced disappearances between 1956 and 1992, seven fewer than at the beginning of the reporting period. The National Council on Human Rights (CNDH), a publicly funded national human rights institution, reported that as of July, six cases of forced disappearances between 1956 and 1992 remained unresolved. The CNDH continued to cooperate with the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) on unresolved cases of disappearance. According to the government, the working group transmitted no new allegations of enforced disappearances. Also, according to the government, no prosecutions were recorded in the first half of the year regarding past enforced disappearances.
The constitution and the law prohibit such practices, and the government denied it authorizes the use of torture.
Although government institutions and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) continued to receive reports about the mistreatment of individuals in official custody, reports of torture have declined over the last several years. According to the government, 385 accusations of mistreatment by police were recorded, of which 336 complaints were processed and 49 complaints were under investigation. According to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, there were eight complaints of torture or degrading treatment filed with the Prosecutor General’s Office during the year. An investigation into the case of Said Feryakh concluded that the detainee had not been subjected to any treatment outside the legal framework by personnel at Souk Larbaa prison during his incarceration. According to the General Delegation for Prison Administration and Reintegration (DGAPR) Feryakh was inciting inmates to revolt and undertake collective action that could jeopardize security and disrupt order in the institution.
As of year’s end, there were continuing investigations by the National Brigade of the Judicial Police of six security officers for use of violence in the course of their duties. The CNDH reported it opened 20 investigations into complaints of torture or degrading treatment between January 1 and August 31.
In the event of an accusation of torture, the law requires judges to refer a detainee to a forensic medical expert when the detainee or lawyer requests it, or if judges notice suspicious physical marks on a detainee. In some cases judges refused to order a medical assessment when a detainee made an allegation of abuse. The UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, human rights NGOs, and media documented cases of authorities’ failure to implement provisions of the antitorture law, including failure to conduct medical examinations when detainees alleged torture.
Reports of mistreatment occurred most frequently in pretrial detention. There were also accusations that security officials subjected Western Sahara proindependence protesters to degrading treatment during or following demonstrations or protests calling for the release of alleged political prisoners. OHCHR noted in March it had received reports of unnecessary and disproportionate use of force by security forces to disperse protests.
On March 17, a video posted on social media networks showed a member of the security services in civilian clothes assaulting teachers during a union demonstration organized in Rabat. The individual, identified as Sahm Bouhfid, was detained on March 18 for violence, assault and battery, misuse of office, and interference with duties of a public office. On April 5, Bouhfid was sentenced to one year in prison. On July 26, his sentence was reduced to eight months on appeal.
According to Amnesty International, on March 25 Moroccan police in Western Sahara detained and allegedly tortured 15-year-old Mustapha Razouk for peacefully protesting the detention of another activist. According to Razouk’s testimony, authorities beat Razouk, poured boiling melted plastic on him, and suspended him from the ceiling. He alleged that he was not given access to a doctor during the first three days in custody and was forced to sign a police report without being allowed to read it. Razouk was sentenced to one month in prison for participating in a protest and throwing stones at a police vehicle. He was released on April 26. There was no information on official investigation into Razouk’s torture claims.
In April a female teacher accused law enforcement officials in Rabat of sexually assaulting her during a teachers’ demonstration calling for maintaining retirement benefits. According to the government, the Prosecutor General’s Office offered to provide medical exams to 21 other demonstrators who said they also had been sexually assaulted during the demonstration. The investigation was still pending as of year’s end.
In January 2020 the spouse of Abdelqader Belliraj, who was serving a life sentence on terrorism-related charges, told Human Rights Watch (HRW) that Belliraj has been deprived of contact with other inmates since 2016 and was kept in confinement 23 hours a day. According to media reports, the DGAPR stated Belliraj received an hour break each day that allowed for interactions with other inmates and was allowed family visits and access to a telephone. Belliraj claimed he was convicted based on confessions obtained under police torture. Belliraj was transferred at his request to a prison in Marrakech in March.
In Western Sahara, human rights organizations continued to track alleged abusers from local security forces who remained in leadership positions or who had been transferred to other positions. International and local human rights organizations claimed that authorities dismissed many complaints of abuse and relied only on police statements. Government officials generally did not provide information on the outcome of complaints.
In March 2020, HRW published a report of police violence against two Western Sahara independence activists, Walid el-Batal and Yahdhih el-Ghazal, in Smara in June 2019. According to HRW’s report, Moroccan security forces attempted to prohibit the men from attending an event for activist Salah Labsir who was serving a four-year prison sentence on charges of premeditated violence against police and destruction of public goods. OHCHR requested an investigation into el-Batal’s case, raising concerns regarding human rights abuses. The National Police Force (DGSN) opened a judicial investigation into this incident. According to the DGAPR, six police officers were prosecuted following the dissemination on social networks of a video illustrating the circumstances of arrest.
According to the Conduct in UN Field Missions online portal, there were two allegations submitted during the year of sexual exploitation and abuse by Moroccan peacekeepers deployed to UN peacekeeping missions. The first concerned transactional sex in late 2020 in the UN Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The second concerned attempted rape of a child and soliciting transactional sex with an adult in the UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in the Central African Republic. Moroccan and UN Office of Internal Oversight Services investigations into both allegations remained pending.
d. Arbitrary Arrest or Detention
The law prohibits arbitrary arrest and detention and provides for the right of any person to challenge in court the lawfulness of his or her arrest or detention. Observers indicated that police did not always respect these provisions or consistently observe due process, particularly during or in the wake of protests. According to local NGOs and associations, police sometimes arrested persons without warrants or while wearing civilian clothing.
No official from the DGSN has been investigated for arbitrary detention related to the application of measures pertaining to the state of health emergency.
Individuals have the right to challenge the legal basis or arbitrary nature of their detention and request compensation by submitting a complaint to the court.
Arrest Procedures and Treatment of Detainees
By law police may arrest an individual after a general prosecutor issues an oral or written warrant. The law permits authorities to deny defendants’ access to counsel or family members during the initial 96 hours of detention under terrorism-related laws or during the initial 24 hours of detention for all other charges, with an optional extension of 12 hours with the approval of the Prosecutor’s Office. Authorities did not consistently respect these limits. Reports of abuse most referred to these initial detention periods when police interrogated detainees. The government continued to require new police officers to receive security and human rights training facilitated by civil society.
In ordinary criminal cases, the law requires police to notify a detainee’s next of kin of an arrest immediately after the above-mentioned period of incommunicado detention, unless arresting authorities applied for and received an extension from a magistrate. Police did not consistently respect this requirement. Authorities sometimes delayed notifying the family or did not inform lawyers promptly of the date of arrest, and the families and lawyers were not able to monitor compliance with detention limits and treatment of the detainee.
The law states, “in the case of a flagrant offense, the Judicial Police Officer has the right to keep the suspect in detention for 48 hours. If strong and corroborated evidence is raised against this person, [the officer] can keep them in custody for a maximum of three days with the written authorization of the prosecutor.” According to the Antiterrorism Act, a terrorism suspect can be detained for up to 12 days. The suspect has a right to a 30-minute visit by a lawyer, but this visit can be delayed until the end of the 12-day detention period. In non-terrorism-related cases the lawyer’s visit must occur no later than the midpoint of the detention period. NGO observers and human rights activists widely assessed that the law on counterterrorism is inconsistent with international standards.
At the conclusion of the initial detention period in police custody, a detainee must be presented to a prosecutor, who may issue provisional charges and order additional investigation by an investigating judge in preparation for trial. The investigating judge has four months, plus a possible one-month extension, to interview the individual and determine what charges, if any, to file for trial. An individual may be detained in investigatory detention or at liberty during this phase. At the end of five months (if an extension is granted), the investigative judge must either file charges, decline to file charges and drop the case, or release the individual pending an additional investigation and a determination of whether to file. Authorities generally followed these timelines.
NGO sources stated that some judges were reticent to use alternative sentences permitted under the law, such as provisional release. The law does not require written authorization for release from detention. In some instances judges released defendants on their own recognizance. A bail bond system exists; the bond may be in the form of property or of cash paid to the court. The amount of the bond is subject to the judge’s discretion, depending on the offense. Bail may be requested at any time before the verdict. According to the law, defendants have the right to attorneys; if a defendant cannot afford private counsel, authorities must provide a court-appointed attorney if the criminal penalty exceeds five years in prison. Authorities did not always provide effective and timely counsel.
Arbitrary Arrest: Security forces often detained groups of individuals, took them to a police station, questioned them for several hours, and released them without charge.
Under the penal code, any public official who orders an arbitrary detention may be punished by demotion and, if it is done for private interest, by imprisonment for 10 years to life. An official who neglects to refer a claimed or observed arbitrary or illegal detention to his superiors may be punished by demotion. During the year no security officials were investigated for arbitrary arrest associated with enforcement of the shelter-in-place protocol due to COVID-19 restrictions. There was no information available as to whether these provisions were applied during the year.
On December 15, the Court of Cassation approved the extradition to the People’s Republic of China (PRC) of Uyghur journalist Idriss Aishan, who was arrested on July 19 upon his arrival to Morocco based on a 2017 INTERPOL Red Notice issued at the request of the PRC. Reporters without Borders and other human rights NGOs reported that the notice was a politically motivated instance of transnational repression targeting a perceived dissident. Even after the warrant was withdrawn in August, Aishan remained in detention. Aishan was pursuing an appeal process in the Moroccan courts.
Following alleged mistreatment while in detention, prisoner Mohamed Lamine Hadi who was arrested for participating in the 2010 Gdeim Izik camp protest, reportedly began a hunger strike on January 13. OHCHR stated Haddi took this action to protest his detention and isolation as arbitrary. The government denied Haddi undertook a hunger strike. On January 25, Haddi told his family that he had received death threats from the prison director of the Tifelt 2 prison. He was then not heard from until March, when his mother reported Haddi had called her claiming he was in poor health and had been subject to forced feeding.
OHCHR noted in March it had received reports of arbitrary arrests and detention of Sahrawi activists.
Pretrial Detention: Although the government claimed authorities generally brought accused persons to trial within two months, prosecutors may request as many as five additional two-month extensions of pretrial detention. Government officials attributed delays to the large backlog of cases in the justice system caused by a lack of resources devoted to the justice system, both human and infrastructure; the lack of plea bargaining as an option for prosecutors, lengthening the amount of time to process cases on average; the rare use of mediation and other out-of-court settlement mechanisms allowed by law; and the absence of legal authority for alternative sentencing, among other issues. The government reported that, as of November approximately 43 percent of detainees were in pretrial detention awaiting their first trial. In some cases defendants were held in pretrial detention for longer than their eventual sentence, particularly for misdemeanors.
Journalist Suleimane Raissouni was held in pretrial detention for more than a year before he was sentenced on July 9 to five years in prison on sexual assault charges. International NGOs stated trials had procedural flaws, the inability of defense teams to call witnesses, and the court denying the defense lawyers from fully presenting their client’s’ defense.
Journalist Suleimane Raissouni was held in pretrial detention for more than a year before he was sentenced on July 9 to five years in prison on sexual assault charges. International NGOs stated trials had procedural flaws, the inability of defense teams to call witnesses, and the court denying the defense lawyers from fully presenting their client’s’ defense.
e. Denial of Fair Public Trial
The constitution provides for an independent judiciary, and, as in previous years, NGOs asserted that corruption and extrajudicial influence weakened judicial independence. The Supreme Judicial Council, mandated by the constitution, manages the courts and day-to-day judicial affairs in place of the Ministry of Justice. The king appoints the president of the Court of Cassation (the highest court of appeals), who chairs the 20-member council. Additional members include the president of the First Chamber of the Court of Cassation; the prosecutor general; the mediator (national ombudsman); the president of the CNDH; 10 members elected by the country’s judges; and five members appointed by the king. While the government’s stated aim in creating the council was to improve judicial independence, there was limited progress in that regard since its inception as an independent entity in 2017. Human rights activists alleged trials in cases involving Islam as it related to political life and national security, the legitimacy of the monarchy, and Western Sahara, sometimes appeared politicized.
The law provides for the right to a fair and public trial with the right of appeal, but this did not always occur. The law presumes that defendants are innocent. Defendants are informed promptly of potential charges after the initial arrest and investigation period. Defendants are then informed of final charges at the conclusion of the full investigatory period, which may last several months. Trials are conducted in Arabic, and foreigners have the right to request interpretation if they do not speak Arabic.
Defendants have the right to be present at their trial and to consult in a timely manner with an attorney. Defendants have the right to refuse to participate in their trial, and a judge may decide to continue the proceedings in the defendant’s absence while providing a detailed summary to the defendant. Authorities at times denied lawyers timely access to their clients, and in some cases lawyers met their clients only at the first hearing before the judge. Authorities are required to provide attorneys in cases where the potential sentence is greater than five years if the defendant is unable to afford one. Publicly provided defense attorneys were often poorly paid and not properly trained in matters pertaining to juveniles. If an attorney has not yet been appointed when a trial begins, the judge may ask any attorney present to represent the defendant. This practice often resulted in inadequate representation. At times NGOs provided attorneys for vulnerable individuals (minors, refugees, victims of domestic violence), who frequently did not have the means to pay. Access to NGO resources was limited and specific to larger cities.
The law permits defense attorneys to question witnesses. Despite the provisions of the law, some judges reportedly denied defense requests to question witnesses or to present mitigating witnesses or evidence. Several NGOs noted arbitrary access to case files for the defense teams presented a significant challenge to representing their clients. NGOs also noted sometimes multiple hearings using the same defense team were scheduled at the same time, impeding the ability of defense teams to provide fair representation.
The law forbids judges from admitting confessions made under duress without additional corroborating evidence, government officials stated. NGOs reported that the judicial system often relied on confessions for the prosecution of criminal cases, and authorities pressured investigators to obtain a confession from suspects to expedite prosecution. HRW and local NGOs charged that judges, at their discretion, sometimes decided cases based on forced confessions. According to the government, to move away from a confession-based judicial system, cases based solely on confessions and without any other substantiating evidence were no longer accepted by the courts.
According to the DGSN, during the year the forensics unit in partnership with international technical experts trained 85 judges and public prosecutors on forensics evidence for prosecutions. The National Police have evidence preservation centers throughout the country to secure evidence collected at crime scenes and to ensure compliance with chain of custody procedures. According to the Ministry of Justice, legal clerks manage the evidence preservation centers and coordinate access to evidence.
Political Prisoners and Detainees
The law does not define or recognize the concept of a political prisoner. The government did not consider any of its prisoners to be political prisoners and stated it had charged or convicted all individuals in prison under criminal law. The criminal law penalizes certain nonviolent advocacy and dissent, such as insulting police in songs or “defaming Morocco’s sacred values” by denouncing the king and regime during a public demonstration. NGOs, including the Moroccan Association for Human Rights (AMDH), Amnesty International, and Sahrawi organizations, asserted the government imprisoned persons for political activities or beliefs under the cover of criminal charges.
In 2019 police in Rabat arrested Mohammed Boudouh, also known as Moul al-Hanout (grocery store owner), for “offending public officials” and “incitement to hatred.” Boudouh posted a live video on his Facebook page criticizing the king for allowing corruption. In January 2020 the court of first instance of Khemisset, sentenced Mohammed Boudouh to three years in prison for “insulting constitutional institutions and public officials.” As of year’s end, Mohammed Boudouh remained in Tiflet Prison. Amnesty International claimed the charges against Mohammed Boudouh were politically motivated.
Security forces arrested Soulaimane Raissouni, journalist and editor in chief of newspaper Akhbar al-Yaoum, in Casablanca in May 2020 after an individual claimed on Facebook that Raissouni sexually assaulted him in 2018. Raissouni disputed the allegation, and civil society groups and activists asserted his arrest was politically motivated to silence independent journalists. An investigating judge charged him with “violent and indecent assault and forced detention” and ordered his detention in Oukacha Prison. Reporters Without Borders described his original trial as “tainted by irregularities,” as the defense lawyers were not able to consult the indictment issued by the investigating judge. On April 8, Raissouni launched a 118-day hunger strike. On April 22, following a request by his lawyers, Raissouni was allowed to consult his criminal file under the supervision of the prison administration. In early June his lawyer claimed Raissouni could barely sit, stand, or walk on his own. According to the CNDH, Raissouni was held in the prison’s health unit where he received daily medical visits. The DGAPR ordered Raissouni’s transfer to Ibn Roch Hospital for treatment but said Raissouni refused. After one year in pretrial detention, on July 10, a court convicted Raissouni and sentenced him to five years in prison. According to the government, the judge ordered Raissouni to appear at the trial to hear the verdict, but Raissouni refused due to his poor health. Raissouni ended his hunger strike in August. His appeal process was ongoing at year’s end.
Human rights and proindependence groups considered a number of imprisoned Sahrawis to be political prisoners. This number included the 19 Gdeim Izik prisoners who remained in prison, as well as members of Sahrawi rights or proindependence organizations. In 2020 the Court of Cassation upheld the appeals verdict against 23 Sahrawi individuals arrested during the 2010 dismantling of the Gdeim Izik Camp, in which 11 Moroccan security officials and more than 30 protesters were killed. The sentences ranged from time served to life imprisonment. The individuals had been previously convicted in a military trial in 2013. A 2015 revision of the Code on Military Justice eliminated military trials for civilians, and in 2016 the Court of Cassation ruled on appeal that the group should receive a new civilian trial. HRW noted concerns that the verdict was reached based on a confession obtained under torture.
Sahrawi political activists alleged security authorities unlawfully entered their homes to harass, intimidate, and confiscate personal belongings. Some activists alleged security authorities carried out these acts to signal that if their political activities did not stop, harassment and intimidation would increase.
Civil Judicial Procedures and Remedies
Although individuals have access to civil courts for lawsuits relating to human rights violations and have filed lawsuits, such lawsuits were frequently unsuccessful due to the courts’ lack of judicial independence in politically sensitive cases or lack of impartiality stemming from extrajudicial influence and corruption. The Supreme Judicial Council is tasked with ensuring ethical behavior by judicial personnel (see section 4). There are administrative as well as judicial remedies for alleged wrongdoing. Authorities sometimes failed to respect court orders in a timely manner.
The Institution of the Mediator (akin to a national ombudsman) helped resolve civil matters that did not clear the threshold to merit involvement of the judiciary, including cases involving civil society registration issues. Although this office faced backlogs, it gradually expanded the scope of its activities and subjected complaints to in-depth investigation. The mediator retransmitted to the CNDH for resolution cases specifically related to allegations of human rights abuses by authorities. The CNDH continued to be a conduit through which citizens expressed complaints regarding human rights abuses.
While the constitution states an individual’s home is inviolable and that a search may take place only with a search warrant, authorities at times entered homes without judicial authorization, employed informers, and monitored, without legal process, personal movement, and private communications – including email, text messaging, or other digital communications intended to remain private.
Amnesty International and OHCHR reported in July that Sahrawi rights activist Sultana Khaya had been under de facto house arrest since November 2020. Although the government denied Khaya was under house arrest, security forces stationed at her house monitored her movements and interactions. Khaya stated that police have raided her house several times. During one of these raids in May, Khaya alleged that police officials physically assaulted her sister and mother. Amnesty International reported that Khaya and her sister said police raped them during the raid, a charge that authorities denied. Additionally, activist Babuizid Muhammed Saaed Labhi and two student activists who were staying in Khaya’s house were reportedly detained. The Regional Council on Human Rights (CRDH) in Laayoune attempted to meet with Khaya at her home on February 13 to discuss her allegations and facilitate access to medical care. Khaya declined CRDH’s assistance, citing her distrust of the authorities’ willingness to conduct an impartial investigation. According to the government, in May the Laayoune Court of Appeal opened an investigation into Khaya’s allegations of police brutality and sexual assault. There was no official investigation into these claims, which Khaya attributed to her distrust of the authorities’ willingness to conduct an impartial investigation and the government stated was a result of her unwillingness to cooperate.
In June 2020 Amnesty International published a report claiming authorities used spyware made by Israel-based company NSO Group to target journalist Omar Radi’s phone from January 2019 to January 2020. In July 2020 police arrested Radi on charges of “indecent assault with violence; rape; the receipt of foreign funds for the purpose of undermining state’s domestic security; and initiation of contacts with agents of foreign countries to harm the diplomatic situation of the country.” According to HRW, the rape and indecent assault charges against Radi were based on a complaint filed in July 2020 by one of Radi’s colleagues. After Radi refused in March to have his trial held in a virtual format during the COVID-19 pandemic, his trial was postponed to May 18. In April 2021 Radi carried out a 22-day hunger strike to protest his lengthy pretrial detention. He ended the strike on May 1. On May 5, a judge denied Radi’s request for provisional release. Radi’s trial was later postponed until June 1 by the criminal chamber of the Casablanca Court of Appeal due to his poor health. Media outlets reported Radi was weakened to the point of not being able to answer the questions. The trial was postponed three times in June due to an accusation by his attorneys of procedural irregularities and further delayed due to Radi’s poor health. On July 19, Radi was found guilty on charges of espionage and sexual assault and sentenced to six years in prison.
According to Amnesty International, academic Maati Monjib was additionally subjected to government surveillance through the NSO Group spyware technology.
Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties
a. Freedom of Expression, Including for Members of the Press and Other Media
The constitution and law generally provide for freedom of expression, including for the press, although criticism of Islam, the institution of the monarchy, or the government’s positions regarding territorial integrity and Western Sahara is criminalized. Such criticism can result in prosecution under the penal code, with punishments ranging from fines to prison time. The press code, which provides for freedom of expression, applies only to journalists accredited by the department of communication, under the Ministry of Culture, Youth, and Sports, and only for speech or publications in the line of work; private speech by accredited journalists remains punishable under the penal code.
According to the Freedom House 2021 Freedom in the World report, the press enjoyed a significant degree of freedom when reporting on economic and social policies, but authorities used an array of financial and legal mechanisms to punish critical journalists. NGOs reported that despite press codes intended to prevent the unlawful imprisonment of individuals exercising their freedom of expression, authorities utilized penal codes to punish commentators, activists, and journalists criticizing the government.
Freedom of Expression: The law criminalizes criticism of Islam, of the legitimacy of the monarchy, of state institutions, of officials such as those in the military, and of the government’s positions regarding territorial integrity and Western Sahara. The government sometimes prosecuted persons who expressed criticism on these topics. Amnesty International and HRW highlighted dozens of cases in which freedom of expression was restricted. During the year there were instances where individuals publicly critical of the monarch, local authorities, and Islam were harassed by government authorities. According to the government, 359 individuals were specifically charged for criminal speech, including defamation, slander, and insult (see Libel/Slander Laws and National Security).
In response to the COVID pandemic, parliament passed a law in 2020 declaring a health emergency and setting a penalty of a three-month prison sentence for anyone disobeying “orders and decisions taken by public authorities” and for anyone “obstructing” through “writings, publications or photos” those decisions.
In December 2020 national security institutions in charge of internal security such as external security (DGED) and the DGSN filed an official complaint with the Prosecutor General of the Rabat Court of First Instance against six Moroccans residing abroad for “insults and defamation of public officials and security bodies and denunciation of fictional crimes, ultimately undermining national security.”
Freedom of Expression for Members of the Press and Other Media, Including Online Media: Independent media, as well as partisan media, were active and expressed a variety of views within the restrictions of the law. The press code limits punishments for accredited journalists to fines.
According to an October 1 report submitted by UN secretary-general pursuant to the UN Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO) mandate, OHCHR remained concerned by reports of undue restrictions imposed by the government on the rights to freedom of expression and excessive surveillance of human rights defenders and journalists in Western Sahara. The report added that OHCHR continued to receive reports of harassment and arbitrary arrests of journalists, bloggers, and human rights defenders covering human rights violations.
On April 8, prosecutors in Mohammedia arrested and charged two editors of online outlet Mohammedia Press for publishing “false information” in relation to a video the editors posted that the government claimed contributed to the spread of anti-COVID-19 vaccine information. Five other persons were arrested for sharing the same information via their Facebook accounts. A court later acquitted the editors and ordered their release.
On July 8, YouTube commentator Mustapha Semlali, was sentenced to two years in prison for “undermining the monarchy” after he allegedly defamed Prince Moulay Rachid, the king’s brother.
Journalists continued to denounce the cumbersome administrative procedures and the long wait times to receive accreditation under the press code. Some members of the press claimed that journalists from outlets close to the government and palace received their credentials sooner than journalists from independent outlets. They claimed journalists waiting for their credentials had to operate without a press card in an ambiguous legal status, as the protections of the press code are only available to accredited journalists.
The government also enforced strict procedures governing journalists’ meetings with NGO representatives and political activists. Foreign journalists needed, but did not always receive, approval from the Ministry of Culture, Youth, and Sports before meeting with political activists.
The trial for seven members of the Moroccan Association for Investigative Journalism, including Hicham Mansouri, Maati Monjib, and Hisham Almiraat, was repeatedly postponed through the year since 2015. According to the Ministry of Justice, Mansouri, Monjib, and Almiraat were suspected of accepting foreign funds intended for acts threatening the internal security and territorial integrity of the country. The seven individuals were charged with posing a threat to the internal security of the country, fraud, managing an association exercising unauthorized acts, and accepting unauthorized foreign funds. On January 27, a court sentenced Monjib to one year in prison and a fine for charges of fraud and endangering national security in a separate case dating back to 2015 after authorities arrested him in December 2020. On March 23, authorities released Monjib after he carried out a hunger strike. He has an appeal hearing date on February 24. On October 13, Monjib attempted to leave the country for medical treatment but was denied boarding. The prosecutor of the Rabat Court of First Instance stated that the terms of Monjib’s provisional release do not allow him to leave the country.
Violence and Harassment:Authorities subjected some journalists to harassment and intimidation, including attempts to discredit them through harmful rumors about their personal lives. Journalists reported that selective prosecutions served as a mechanism for intimidation.
According to media reports, authorities rejected one international journalist’s accreditation request during the year because he lacked a valid permit for journalism.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: Self-censorship and government restrictions on sensitive topics remained serious hurdles to the development of a free, independent, and investigative press. Publications and broadcast media require government accreditation, and the government may deny and revoke accreditation as well as suspend or confiscate publications that breach public order or criticize Islam, the institution of the monarchy, or the government’s positions on territorial integrity. While the government rarely censored the domestic press, it exerted pressure through written and verbal warnings and by pursuing legal cases that resulted in heavy fines and suspended publication. Such cases encouraged editors and journalists to self-censor and host opposition news sites on servers outside the country to avoid being shut down by the authorities. According to Freedom House, personal attacks and derogatory comments received by activists and opinion makers online, often in response to their criticism of government policies, also contributed to self-censorship.
Libel/Slander Laws: The press code includes provisions that permit the government to impose financial penalties on accredited journalists and publishers who violate restrictions related to defamation, libel, and insults. A court may impose a prison sentence if an accredited journalist is unable or unwilling to pay the fine.
Individuals not registered as journalists may be charged with defamation, libel, and slander under the criminal code, as may accredited journalists for their private actions.
After reports from several NGOs in July accusing the government of using Pegasus spyware developed by the Israeli company NSO Group to monitor dissidents, human rights activists, and other high-profile individuals, the government reportedly sued several NGOs and media outlets for “defamation” and “spreading false information.” The government filed lawsuits against Amnesty International and the French media organization Forbidden Stories for defamation, and decision was pending at year’s end.
National Security: The antiterrorism law provides for the arrest of individuals, including journalists, and filtering websites deemed to “disrupt public order by intimidation, terror, or violence.” The law assigns legal liability to the author and anyone who in any way helps the author to disseminate information deemed as a justification for acts of terrorism, which would include site owners and internet service providers. While the law was designed to combat terrorism, authorities retain the discretion to define terms such as “national security” and “public order,” under the penal code for which the government can seek fines of up to 200,000 Moroccan dirhams ($21,000) for publishing content online seen as disruptive to public order, with the maximum fine of 500,000 Moroccan dirhams ($52,000) if the content offends the military. Online speech offenses related to the monarchy, Islam, and Western Sahara, as well as threats to national security can carry prison sentences of two to six years.
The government did not disrupt access to the internet, but it did apply laws governing and restricting public speech and the press on the internet. The press code stipulates that online journalism is equivalent to print journalism. Laws on combatting terrorism permit the government to filter websites. The government repeatedly reminded online journalists to obey the law. The government also prosecuted individuals for expressing certain ideological views online, particularly related to protests in the northern Rif region.
According to Freedom House, numerous accounts were created on Twitter and Facebook with the apparent purpose of harassing, intimidating, and threatening activists who criticize authorities. Activists believed these progovernment commentators were also equipped with direct or indirect access to surveillance tools, since they often obtained private information about other users. According to various NGOs, the government frequently hacked Sahrawi citizen journalists’ and bloggers’ social media accounts.
Many contributors working for online news outlets and many online news outlets themselves were unaccredited and therefore not covered under the press code for their publications. They remained subject to provisions of the antiterrorism law and the penal code that permit the government to jail and impose financial penalties on anyone who violates restrictions related to defamation, libel, and insults.
Academic Freedom and Cultural Events
The law permits the government to criminalize presentations or debate questioning the legitimacy of Islam, the legitimacy of the monarchy, state institutions, and the status of Western Sahara. The law restricts cultural events and academic activities, although the government generally provided more latitude to political and religious activism confined to university campuses. The Ministry of Interior approves appointments of university rectors.
The government limited freedoms of peaceful assembly and association.
The law provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, and the government generally respected these rights, although it limited movement to areas experiencing widespread unrest. The government denied entry to individuals it believed threatened the stability of the country. The government continued to make travel documents available to Sahrawis to travel and encouraged the return of Sahrawi refugees from Algeria and elsewhere if they acknowledged the government’s sovereignty over Western Sahara. Refugees wishing to return are required to obtain the appropriate travel or identity documents at a Moroccan consulate abroad, often in Mauritania. There were a few reported cases, however, of authorities preventing Sahrawis from traveling.
In-country Movement: There were several reports of government authorities denying local and international organizations and press access to the Rif and Eastern regions. The government, however, maintained that no international organizations or press were denied access to the Rif region.
The government cooperated with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and other humanitarian organizations in providing protection and assistance to refugees, returning refugees, asylum seekers, and other persons of concern. The government also provided funding to humanitarian organizations to provide social services to migrants, including refugees.
The government has historically deferred to UNHCR as the sole agency in the country entitled to perform refugee status determinations and verify asylum cases. UNHCR referred cases that meet the criteria for refugee recognition to the government’s interministerial Commission in Charge of Hearings for Asylum Seekers within the Bureau of Refugees and Stateless Persons.
Access to Asylum: The law provides for the granting of refugee status. The government recognizes asylum status for refugees designated according to the UNHCR statute. The government continued to grant status to UNHCR-recognized refugees and temporary status to registered Syrians. During the year UNHCR reported it registered 5,560 new asylum applications.
Abuse of Migrants and Refugees: Refugees, asylum seekers, and migrants were particularly vulnerable to abuse. Authorities continued cooperation with Spanish and EU authorities to thwart trafficking networks and arrest smugglers.
Local and international organizations reported receiving several complaints regarding the rights of migrants. There were reports of government authorities arresting or detaining migrants, particularly around the Spanish enclave cities of Melilla and Ceuta, and relocating them to other parts of the country to deter attempts to cross illegally into Spanish territory. NGOs reported that authorities relocated some migrants from Tangier to cities further south. NGOs alleged that irregular migrants caught begging in Rabat were sent to other cities to keep the capital pristine; however, government authorities denied this allegation. Farther south, several NGOs reported that on May 7, authorities detained dozens of migrants, including pregnant women and children, arriving from sub-Saharan Africa to Laayoune and transferred them to the city of Tan-Tan.
On May 17, an estimated 8,000 individuals – the vast majority of whom were Moroccan – attempted to cross into the Spanish enclave of Ceuta, located at the country’s northern tip. NGOs and media speculated the government encouraged the influx of migrants to Ceuta. Approximately 6,000 migrants were returned to Morocco.
The government maintained the return of third-country nationals to their country of origin was coordinated with diplomatic legations who endorsed these departures and issued the appropriate papers (see section 2.f., Durable Solutions).
Migrants, asylum seekers, and refugees have equal access to justice and public services, including health and education. Nonetheless, sometimes they were unable to access the national health care system and continued to have little access to the judicial system until recognized as refugees. Additionally, migrants who do not have a residency permit had difficulty receiving vaccinations because they were required to provide proof of residency and a valid form of identification. Many irregular migrants find it difficult or costly to obtain a valid form of identification and documents showing where they reside in the country.
Durable Solutions: The government facilitated voluntary migrant returns with the support of the International Organization for Migration (IOM). In 2020 the IOM facilitated 796 voluntary returns to countries of origin, a reduction from 1,370 in 2019, due to COVID-related challenges. As of March the IOM facilitated 625 voluntary returns. UNHCR resettled a total of 21 refugees during the year, the low number due to COVID.
Temporary Protection: The government also provided temporary protection to individuals who may not qualify as refugees. Syrians and Yemenis benefited from “exceptional regularization” outside the usual migrant regularization program.
Section 3. Freedom to Participate in the Political Process
The country is a constitutional monarchy under which ultimate authority rests with King Mohammed VI, who presides over the Council of Ministers. The king shares executive authority with a prime minister who is the head of government. According to the constitution, the king appoints the head of government from the political party with the most seats in parliament and approves members of the government nominated by the head of government.
The law provides for, and citizens participated in, free and fair periodic elections held by secret ballot and based on universal and equal suffrage for parliament’s Chamber of Representatives and municipal and regional councils. Regional and professional bodies indirectly elected members of parliament’s less powerful Chamber of Counselors.
Elections and Political Participation
Recent Elections: On September 8, the country held local, regional, and parliamentary elections for the Chamber of Representatives (the lower house of parliament). Although there were allegations of vote buying and candidate intimidation, domestic and international observers considered the elections generally free, fair, and transparent. As stipulated by the constitution, the king tasked the National Rally of Independents, which won the most seats in the newly elected chamber, to form a governing coalition and nominate new ministers.
Political Parties and Political Participation: A political party may not legally challenge Islam as the state religion, the institution of the monarchy, or the country’s territorial integrity. The law prohibits basing a party on a religious, ethnic, or regional identity. The Ministerial Council, held on February 11, approved legislation that included a number of requirements to increase women’s political representation at national and local levels.
Participation of Women and Members of Minority Groups: No laws limit participation of women or members of minority groups in the political process, and they did participate. Voters elected a record number of women in this year’s elections. In the new government, led by Head of Government Aziz Akhannouch, seven women were appointed ministers, the highest number to date. One female minister – who was simultaneously elected as mayor of Casablanca – resigned from her ministerial position one week after her appointment to focus on her mayoralty position.