Tunis — Moroccan authorities should urgently review the conviction of an activist sentenced to five years in prison in possible reprisal for his activism in a social protest movement, Human Rights Watch said today. The authorities should ensure that no confession obtained by coercion is admitted as evidence.
A first instance court convicted Elmortada Iamrachen, 31, of inciting and praising terrorism on November 30, 2017, based on Facebook posts and a confession to the police that he repudiated shortly after he signed it and said in court was false and coerced. The court summarily rejected his claim that his confession had been coerced without investigating it. His appeal is to be heard on February 7, 2018.
"Once again, a Moroccan activist is thrown in prison after his contested confession is used to convict him," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. "The Moroccan authorities need to fully examine Iamrachen's claim that his police statement was made under duress and exclude any evidence that appears to be the result of coercion."
Iamrachen was one of the main spokesmen for the Hirak, a protest movement formed in October 2016 over the government's alleged neglect of Morocco's northern Rif region. He was arrested on June 10, 2017, during a weeks-long roundup of Hirak leaders and protesters. About 450 of them have been sentenced to prison terms ranging from a few months to 20 years, and about 50 are awaiting trial. Many of the detained protesters said police had tortured them and forced them to sign written confessions. Some of these allegations were corroborated by forensic reports reviewed by Human Rights Watch.
Police arrested Iamrachen in al-Hoceima, Rif's main city, and transferred him to the Salé headquarters of the Central Office of Judiciary Investigations, a security service specializing in counterterrorism operations. He remained there in pretrial detention for 10 days, as permitted under Morocco's counterterrorism laws. During his interrogation, the police asked Iamrachen mostly about the Hirak's organization and operational details, his lawyers Naima El Gallaf and Mohamed Kotaya told Human Rights Watch. Later, the police presented Iamrachen with a written statement for his signature that barely mentioned the Hirak, and in which he "confessed" that his intention in posting certain items on Facebook was to praise acts of terrorism and incite others to commit them.
The statement focused on two of Iamrachen's Facebook entries. In the first, he posted the news of the assassination of Russia's ambassador in Turkey on December 19, 2016, by a Turkish policeman believed to have acted on behalf of the Islamic State (also known as ISIS). Iamrachen's Facebook post, which has been reviewed by Human Rights Watch, did not comment on the news other than to report, as many news outlets had done, that, "The murderer shouted: 'we die in Aleppo, and you die here.'" But later that day, he added, "The killing of the Russian ambassador is a terrorist crime, and the murderer is a criminal ... no matter what his motivations were."
In the second, dated June 9, 2017, Iamrachen wrote of telling a journalist that the Al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, whom he had visited in Tora Bora, Afghanistan, had ordered him to import weapons into the Rif. He said in court that the post was manifestly sarcastic - among other reasons because he had never been to Afghanistan. Mohamed Sadkou, one of his lawyers, told Human Rights Watch that "in his Facebook post, Iamrachen was recounting how he had mocked a journalist who was making ludicrous accusations against him, by telling him imaginary facts and daring him to publish them." The statement drafted by the police and signed by Iamrachen in June does not include the defendant's explanation that it was sarcasm.
Iamrachen's lawyers said he signed his statement to the police without reading it because the officers threatened to leak intimate photos of him and his wife that they had found in the laptop they had seized when arresting him. On June 20, 2017, Iamrachen was heard by investigating judge Abdelkader Chentouf, of the counterterrorism chamber of the Rabat Appeals Court. Sadkou, who was present at the hearing, said Iamrachen requested that Chentouf tell the police not to publish his pictures.
On November 30, during his trial before the counterterrorism court in Salé, Iamrachen told the trial judge he had been coerced to sign the police statement because they had threatened to publish private pictures of his wife, Sadkou said. He filed a motion to dismiss the police statement on the grounds that the defendant had signed it "under coercion and threat."
The court rejected the motion, saying that "after reviewing the police statement, the court noticed that the defendant not only applied his signature to it, but also wrote his name; which prompted the court to reject the (defense's) motion due to its lack of seriousness." The judgment did not give any indication that the court had considered, let alone examined the claim that the confession was coerced, including why or how writing his name in addition to his signature proved that the defendant had signed voluntarily.
Article 293 of Morocco's Code of Penal Procedure provides that no statement prepared by the police may be admitted into evidence if it is obtained through coercion or violence. Moroccan and international law also require the judge to reject a coerced statement. The African Principles on the right to a fair trial, drafted by the African human rights commission, state that, "Any confession or other evidence obtained by any form of coercion or force may not be admitted as evidence or considered as probative of any fact at trial or in sentencing." Morocco joined the African Union in 2017, and is bound to implement these human rights standards.
Morocco's criminal laws on incitement have been repeatedly criticized as too vague and broad, risking criminalizing free expression, and of being so arbitrary that a person cannot reasonably predict what acts will be considered crimes. Reforms should eliminate references to such vague terms as "praising" terrorism and specify that criminal incitement requires the presence of an actual risk that the act will be committed, Human Rights Watch said. They also should expressly refer to two elements of intent - the intent to communicate a message, and the intent that this message incites the commission of a criminal act.
"The court chose to say nothing about Iamrachen's explanations for his Facebook posts nor to investigate his claims of a coerced confession, and to rely solely on that confession before sentencing him to five years in prison," Whitson said. "This may well not be a terrorism case at all, but rather a twisted effort to punish yet another leader of a protest movement that the Moroccan government seems determined to crush."