(Rabat) – Morocco’s authorities should free a student convicted of offending the dignity of the king, Human Rights Watch said today. Two years after adopting a constitution that enshrines freedom of expression, Morocco should abolish the repressive laws that put him in prison.
Abdessamad Haydour, 24, is halfway through a three year sentence for denouncing King Mohammed VI in a video posted on YouTube. He has now served more time behind bars for this offense than any other Moroccan in the last several years, as far as Human Rights Watch has been able to determine.
“If Morocco intends to carry out its new constitutional guarantees of free expression, it needs to get rid of laws that send people to jail for offending the head of state, even if what they say seems crude,” said Joe Stork, acting Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch.
Morocco’s constitution, drafted in the wake of 2011 pro-reform demonstrations that toppled presidents in Egypt and Tunisia and reached Moroccan cities, was adopted by a referendum on July 1, 2011. It guarantees “freedom of thought, opinion, and expression in all its forms.” The 2011 constitution also departs from previous constitutions by no longer defining the “person of the king” as “sacred,” although it declares it “inviolable” and “owed respect.”
Government ministers have spoken of the need to revise Morocco’s press law, to harmonize it with the new constitution by eliminating prison terms for nonviolent speech offenses. However, the press law has yet to be revised, and Moroccan courts continue to apply its provisions, and provisions of the penal code, to imprison people for nonviolent offenses of speech against the king, state institutions, and private individuals.
A court in the city of Taza, east of Fez, on February 13, 2012, found Haydour guilty of violating penal code article 179 and press code article 41, which prohibit speech deemed to offend the dignity of the king. The court imposed on him a fine of 10,000 dirhams (US $1,200) in addition to the prison term. The ruling was later upheld on appeal on March 14, 2012, and later on cassation.
Haydour’s “offense” took place in his native city of Taza, during a month punctuated by demonstrations against unemployment and poor economic conditions. The protests led to clashes with the police, property damage, injuries, and arrests. One evening in January 2012, Haydour and another man conducted an impromptu discussion about politics and justice in front of a group of youths who had gathered to listen. Someone filmed them speaking and uploaded the video to the Internet.
In the video, Haydour, a student at a technical college, is seen calling Mohammed VI a “dog,” “a murderer,” and “a dictator,” and warning the king that “he can sit in his palace and organize parties,” but as long as people are “starving,” the people “will not let go… and will get their due one day.”
The police arrested Haydour on February 10, 2012 and the court convicted him three days later (misdemeanor case 168/2012). He has been serving his term in Taza Prison, where he went on hunger strike twice, most recently from March to May, to demand that he be separated from common-crime prisoners, and get free access to the prison library and fewer restrictions on visits, a family member told Human Rights Watch.
Mustapha Khalfi, Morocco’s minister of communications and government spokesman, announced on May 2, 2012, the creation of a national committee for reforming the press and publishing laws. Khalfi told the media at the time that he expected the initiative to culminate in a new text that eliminated prison sanctions, “which would allow it to progress beyond the mistakes that were made in the