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Heavy jail sentences for 53 Hirak activists in Morocco despite allegations of torture

Demonstrators wearing masks protest against the jailing of the leaders of the Hirak movement, in Rabat, Morocco, 15 July 2018
Demonstrators wearing masks protest against the jailing of the leaders of the Hirak movement, in Rabat, Morocco, 15 July 2018

FADEL SENNA/AFP/Getty Images

This statement was originally published on hrw.org on 30 November 2018.

The Casablanca Court of Appeals should weigh evidence that the police tortured the defendants when it reviews the convictions of protesters and activists from the Rif region, Human Rights Watch said today. The appeals case began on November 14, 2018.

A lower court convicted all 53 defendants on June 26, sentencing them to up to 20 years in prison after admitting their "confessions" into evidence and dismissing their allegations of torture and repudiation of their statements. The lower court, in its 3,100-page judgment, did not explain why it had discounted medical reports suggesting that at least some of the defendants had been subjected to police violence upon or after arrest.

"A court shouldn't just ignore evidence of torture," said Ahmed Benchemsi, Middle East and North Africa communications and advocacy director at Human Rights Watch. "The appeals court needs to examine and discard any tainted confessions and ensure that no one is convicted except for real crimes."

The Hirak, a socioeconomic protest movement in Morocco's northern Rif region that started in 2016, staged several peaceful mass demonstrations until a police crackdown in May 2017 led to the arrest of more than 400 activists. Of them, 53, including the movement's leaders, were transferred to Casablanca, where they faced a mass trial that lasted over a year. The Casablanca Court of First Instance convicted all of them on June 26, 2018, on various charges including harming the state's internal security, criminal arson, rebellion, attacking police agents while performing their duty, damaging public property, and staging unauthorized protests, and sentenced them to prison terms from one year to 20 years.

In August, King Mohammed VI pardoned 116 sentenced Hirak activists, including 11 of the Casablanca group, but none of the leaders.

On June 17 and 18, 2017, forensic doctors commissioned by the National Human Rights Council (Conseil National des Droits de l'Homme, or CNDH), an independent state body, examined 34 detained Hirak protesters, including 19 of the Casablanca group. Their medical reports noted that the injuries sustained by some detainees had either a "high" or a "medium level of consistency" with the allegations of police abuse. On July 3, 2017, Moroccan media leaked those reports.

The National Human Rights Council said at the time that the reports had not been finalized and thus were unofficial. But a day later, Justice Minister Mohamed Aujjar announced that he had ordered copies forwarded to prosecutors at the Al Hoceima and Casablanca courts trying these defendants "to include these reports in the case files … [and] take necessary legal measures."

Human Rights Watch reviewed relevant sections of the trial judgment, 41 forensic reports, including 19 by National Human Rights Council -appointed doctors and 22 comissioned by the Casablanca first instance court, attended 17 of the 86 trial sessions, examined 55 court documents, and interviewed 10 defense lawyers and six relatives of the imprisoned activists.

Based on the minutes of the hearings before the investigative judge assigned to the case, 50 of the 53 defendants said that police at the National Brigade of Judiciary Police (Brigade Nationale de la Police Judiciaire, or BNPJ) headquarters in Casablanca pressured them, one way or another, to sign self-incriminating confessions without reading their content. Twenty-one said that the police threatened to rape them or their wives or young daughters. Bouchra Rouissi, a defense lawyer, said that 17 of them told her that they had experienced physical violence during interrogation, including slapping, beating, and punching in the face while they were handcuffed, or that dirty rags were inserted in their mouths.

The defendants "confessed" to acts of violence against police officers, torching police cars and a police residence in Imzouren, a small town near El Hoceima, and organizing unauthorized protests. But all recanted before the investigative judge and later during the trial.

In its written judgment, the court stated that the defendants' allegation of torture was "not serious and not well grounded" and thus the defense's request to invalidate their confessions "should be rejected." The court based this decision on 22 medical examinations ordered by the investigative judge and performed on June 6, 2017, and in some cases on examinations performed by a doctor working in Casablanca's Oukacha prison. But the reports from the court-appointed doctor and the prison doctor deviate in key ways from those performed by the National Human Rights Council team.

The Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, which Morocco has ratified, states that "any statement which is established to have been made as a result of torture shall not be invoked as evidence in any proceedings." Morocco's Code of Penal Procedure provides that "no statement obtained through violence or coercion shall be admitted into evidence."

The defense argued that the court violated the rights of the defense in other ways. It refused to hear witnesses whom the defense considered to be crucial in providing alibis for at least two defendants. The court did hear from three other alibi witnesses, but ruled that their testimony was unconvincing. It also denied the defendants access to dozens of videotapes and wiretap recordings, which the judgement considered key inculpatory evidence, leading defense lawyer Mohamed Messaoudi told Human Rights Watch.

"The first instance Hirak trial was tainted by a serious failure to grapple with evidence of torture and forced confessions and other grave due process violations," Benchemsi said. "The appeals court has an opportunity to show us what this is all about: bringing about justice, or crushing social justice activism."


Torture And Rape Threat Allegations

The forensic reports commissioned by the National Human Rights Council note the detainees' accounts of what happened to them, including the ill-treatment they say they experienced, and assess their psychological states in detail. United Nations' guidelines for documentation of torture and its consequences, also known as the Istanbul Protocol, require such detailed assessments. But the reports of the court-commissined forensic doctor provide little such information.

Jamal El Abbassi, the court-commissioned forensic doctor, found marks of violence on the bodies of 3 of the 22 detainees he examined, including Nasser Zefzafi, the leader of the Hirak movement. However, the doctor did not link those marks to the unlawful police violence that the three men said they had endured. The court denied a defense motion to invalidate the confessions of these three men.

In the judgment, the court determined, based on the assessment by the court-appointed doctor of Zefzafi's injuries, that they were caused by his "violent resistance against police agents" during his arrest on May 29, 2017, rather than by any unlawful police violence. The judgment was silent on the causes of the injuries Dr. El Abbassi found on the two other men.

Hicham Benyaïch and Abdallah Dami, the two Human Rights Council-commissioned forensic doctors, examined 34 Hirak prisoners. Of the 34, 16 had also been examined, 10 or 11 days earlier, by the court-commissioned forensic doctor. Dr. Benyaich and Dr. Dami found traces of violence on nine (of the above-mentioned 16) men that they said were consistent to various degrees with their accounts of police violence. They described the "acute stress" and "psychological distress" many detainees experienced, and stated that "certain allegations [of physical and psychological violence in custody] are credible because they are corroborated by many concurrent testimonies."

For more information on the individual cases, please refer to HRW's statement.

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