Morocco using laws to silence dissent - rights groups

FILE PHOTO: King Mohammed VI of Morocco is pictured with Pope Francis

RABAT (Reuters) - Morocco is increasingly using detention to stop political dissent on social media, a committee of local rights activists said on Thursday, citing a wave of arrests and trials in recent months.

Courts have sentenced a dozen individuals to prison terms of up to four years on charges that include insulting constitutional institutions or public servants and inciting protests, it said in a statement.

People arrested include journalists, activists, a rap star and two high school students, the committee said.

"Trials are vindictive and use the judiciary to settle political scores with critics and opponents who have expressed bold opinions to uncover aspects of corruption," the statement said.

The committee was formed in response to the arrest of Omar Radi, a journalist and activist, last month for a Tweet criticising a judge who had imprisoned protesters. His trial is scheduled for March.

However, a spokesman for the government, Hassan Abyaba, said there was no campaign against free speech and that the police and courts were implementing national laws.

"Any citizen who commits a felony will be punished by the law," he said at a weekly news conference on Thursday.

Morocco mostly sidestepped the turmoil of the 2011 Arab uprisings, responding to the protests with reforms to cede some of King Mohammed VI's powers to an elected government, though he remains the ultimate authority.

Protests over economic and social problems are common, and there were widespread demonstrations in the northern, mountainous Rif region in 2016 and 2017, and in the mining town Jerrada.

One trend the committee noted was the more common use of the penal code in trying free speech cases instead of the more lenient publishing code, which has had no provision for imprisonment since a reform in 2016.

"State repression remains the same despite reforms," said Ahmed Benchemsi of Human Rights Watch, which is not part of the committee that released Thursday's statement.

The day Radi was arrested, Mohamed Sekkaki, who has a popular following on YouTube, was sentenced to four years on charges that included insulting the king.

Last month, an appeals court upheld suspended prison sentences for four journalists who were investigating pension funds.

In November, rapper Mohamed Mounir, known as Gnawi, was imprisoned for a year for insulting the police in a video on social media.




(Reporting By Ahmed El Jechtimi, writing by Angus McDowall; Editing by Bernadette Baum)