Prison and Detention Center Conditions
Prison conditions improved during the year but in some cases did not meet international standards.
Physical Conditions: The Moroccan Observatory of Prisons (OMP), an NGO focused on the rights of prisoners, continued to report that some prisons were overcrowded and failed to meet local and international standards. In newer prisons, pretrial detainees and convicted prisoners were held separately, but in older prisons the two groups remained together.
According to government sources and NGOs, prison overcrowding was also due in large part to an underutilized system of bail or provisional release, a severe backlog in cases, and lack of judicial discretion to reduce the length of prison sentences for specific crimes. Government sources stated that administrative requirements also prevented prison authorities from transferring individuals in pretrial detention or the appeals phase to facilities outside the jurisdiction where their trials were to take place.
According to a DGAPR report in May, the prison population dropped by 7 percent as a result of royal pardons and the Prosecutor General’s Office conducting virtual trials. Overcrowded prisons emerged as a key concern during the COVID-19 pandemic. On March 27, approximately 150 human rights associations and activists signed a petition calling for the DGAPR to release “prisoners of conscience,” such as prisoners arrested during the 2016-17 Rif protests, female prisoners with children, and low-risk offenders, as well as those vulnerable to COVID-19 (detainees older than age 60 or ill). The so-called Rif prisoners were arrested for their involvement in a series of protests in the northern Rif region in 2016 and 2017. Found guilty of damaging public property, injuring law enforcement members, and threatening the stability of the state, approximately four were sentenced to up to 20 years in prison in 2018. On April 5, King Mohammed VI pardoned 5,654 detainees and gave orders to take necessary measures to strengthen the protection of detainees in prisons against COVID-19. In July a royal pardon of an additional 6,032 inmates and 105 others on bail included individuals who were vulnerable to the virus.
The law provides for the separation of minor prisoners from adult prisoners. In all prisons, officials classify youth offenders into two categories, both of which are separated from other prisoners: minors under 18 and youthful offenders 18 to 20 years old. According to authorities, minors are not held with prisoners older than 20 years. The DGAPR had three dedicated juvenile “centers for reform and education” but maintained separate, dedicated youth detention areas for minors in all prisons. The government reported that, in cases where a juvenile court judge ruled that detention was necessary, minors younger than 14 were detained separately from minors 15 to 18 years old. In cases where a minor is ordered to be detained, a judge must follow up on a monthly basis.
The DGAPR reported there was no discrimination in access to health services or facilities based on gender for female prisoners, who make up just over 2 percent of the prison population. Some officials reported that female inmates often had a harder time accessing gender-specific health specialists such as OB/GYNs, than a general physician. Local NGOs asserted that prison facilities did not provide adequate access to health care and did not accommodate the needs of prisoners with disabilities. The DGAPR reported that a nurse and a psychologist examined each prisoner on arrival and that prisoners received care upon request. The DGAPR reported conducting extensive COVID-19 tests and medical consultations in prisons.
The DGAPR provided fresh food to inmates at no cost, certified by the Ministry of Health as meeting the nutritional needs of the average adult male. According to the DGAPR, the penitentiary system accommodated the special dietary needs of prisoners suffering from illnesses and of prisoners with religious dietary restrictions.
NGOs frequently cited cases where prisoners protested the conditions of their detention with hunger strikes. According to Amnesty International, prisoners launched hunger strikes to protest prison conditions, including poor hygiene and sanitation, inadequate health care, overcrowding, and detention far from their families, as well as limited visiting rights and access to education. Prisoners Nabil Ahamjik and Nasser Zefzafi went on a hunger strike on February 22 over allegations of abuse and mistreatment in prison. They demanded better prison conditions, adequate medical care, and visitation rights. Both ended their hunger strike on March 17. According to the OMP, however, most hunger strikes were in protest of judiciary processes and sentences rather than detention conditions. The CNDH and the DGAPR regularly addressed requests for transfer based on family proximity, and the DGAPR sometimes granted such requests. At other times, the DGAPR informed the detainee that the requested transfer was not possible, often because of overcrowding at the requested location.
Some human rights activists asserted that the prison administration reserved harsher treatment for Islamists who challenged the king’s religious authority and for those accused of “questioning the territorial integrity of the country.” The DGAPR denied that any prisoners received differential treatment and asserted that all prisoners received equal treatment in accordance with the law.
Families of detainees from Western Sahara charged that they faced unusually harsh prison conditions. The DGAPR contested this claim and asserted that prisoners in Western Sahara and Sahrawi prisoners in the rest of Morocco received the same treatment as all other prisoners under its authority.
According to the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Center, as of May 15, journalist and Sahrawi activist Mohamed al-Bambary was detained with 45 other prisoners in a cell that was 25 feet by 18.5 feet. The journalists and activists were detained because of their involvement in a movement questioning the territorial integrity of Morocco.
Administration: While authorities generally permitted relatives and friends to visit prisoners, there were reports that authorities denied visiting privileges in some instances. The DGAPR assigned each prisoner to a risk classification level, which determined visiting privileges. According to its prisoner classification guide, the DGAPR placed restrictions on the level of visits, recreation, and types of educational programming for higher-risk prisoners. At all classifications, prisoners may receive visits, although the length, frequency, and number of visitors may vary. Most prisons assigned each prisoner a designated “visit day” to manage the number of visits to the prison. The DGAPR authorizes religious observances and services provided by religious leaders for all prisoners, including religious minorities. In an effort to limit the spread of COVID-19 during the pandemic, DGAPR suspended family and lawyer visits but increased phone time privileges for inmates.
The CNDH and the DGAPR investigated allegations of inhumane conditions. The CNDH and the DGAPR effectively served the function of an ombudsman, and a system of “letterboxes” operated in prisons to facilitate prisoners’ right to submit complaints regarding their imprisonment. Detainees could submit complaints without censorship to the DGAPR Delegate General’s Office for processing, as well as to the CNDH.
Independent Monitoring: The government permitted some NGOs with a human rights mandate to conduct unaccompanied monitoring visits. Government policy also permitted academics, as well as NGOs that provided social, educational, or religious services to prisoners, to enter prison facilities. According to prison officials, academics and various NGOs conducted 79 visits through June. The OMP conducted 53 monitoring visits through June. The CNDH conducted two monitoring visits during the year.
Between January 1 and August 31, the CNDH’s three commissions in the south carried out nine visits to prisons including two visits in Laayoune-Sakia and Smara to focus on the prevention of COVID-19 in prisons. The CNDH observed the DGAPR took a number of steps to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in prisons, including the establishment of a digital platform to provide remote psychological support to prison staff and detainees, limiting the number of family visits and raising awareness through an information campaign among detainees. The Laayoune branch of the CNDH conducted monitoring visits and found the local prison in Dakhla remained overcrowded and insufficiently equipped to provide appropriate living conditions to the detainees. The objectives of the visits were to prevent practices likely to lead directly or indirectly to any form of torture and mistreatment, to verify whether the preventive measures recommended by the public authorities against COVID-19 are in place in compliance with international standards and to engage in a constructive dialogue with the authorities responsible.
Improvements: To alleviate overcrowding and improve overall conditions, the DGAPR reported there were six prisons currently under construction and prison extensions. The DGAPR opened a new prison in Berkane.
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. 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. The UN secretary-general’s report on Western Sahara in September noted the OHCHR received reports of human rights violations perpetrated by government officials against Sahrawis, including arbitrary detention.
In Western Sahara, human rights organizations continued to track alleged abusers 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. The CNDH and DGAPR provided human rights training for prison officials and members of the security forces in Western Sahara.
On March 12, HRW published a report of police violence against two Western Sahara 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 for premeditated violence against police and the destruction of public goods. A video of the incident showed a dozen individuals in civilian clothing forcibly dragging two men from their truck and assaulting them with batons. Two Moroccan police vehicles were in the background of the scene, and the batons matched the style of police-issued equipment while one man wore a police helmet, leading HRW to determine the perpetrators were plainclothes police officers. Ghazal informed HRW that “they beat and tortured us there, and then they took us to the police station. They beat us there. And we passed out–I passed out; when I woke up I found myself in the hospital.” Court documents showed that el-Batal and el-Ghazal were taken to a hospital after their arrest. Moroccan authorities claimed the men were brought to the hospital because of injuries they sustained in colliding with police barriers and resisting arrest. The OHCHR requested an investigation into el-Batal’s case, raising concerns over human rights abuses. The public prosecutor opened an investigation, which resulted in the indictment of five police officers for police brutality. The investigation continued at year’s end.