8 February 2019

Morocco: Free Facebook Commentator

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press release

Beirut — Moroccan authorities should free an entrepreneur who was sentenced to two years in prison in violation of his right to free speech and review his conviction given its abusive nature, Human Rights Watch said today. An appeal of Soufian al-Nguad's conviction is underway and continues on February 11, 2019.

A court of first instance in Tetouan, a city in northern Morocco, sentenced al-Nguad, 29, co-owner of a real estate agency, to the prison term and a fine of 20,000 dirhams (US$2,000) for inciting people to participate in an unauthorized protest. The case was based on his comments on Facebook encouraging people to join a street protest over the killing of a would-be migrant by Morocco's Coast Guard.

"Soufian al-Nguad did nothing but express his anger and urge protests over the killing of an innocent woman," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. "The charges against him are illegitimate, and he should be freed immediately."

On September 25, 2018, the Moroccan Coast Guard fired on a boat in the Mediterranean, killing Hayat Belkacem, 20, a student, and wounding three other passengers, as they tried to migrate to Europe. Morocco's state news agency said that the Coast Guard opened fire after the boat acted "suspiciously" in Moroccan waters and the pilot disobeyed their orders. Authorities said they would investigate the killing but have not disclosed any findings.

On September 27, al-Nguad criticized on Facebook the silence of Moroccan political parties after Belkacem's killing, praised Tetouan's "ultra" soccer fans who called for a black-clad protest in remembrance of the slain student, and encouraged people to join the protest. Six days later, police arrested and interrogated al-Nguad, whom Tetouan's prosecutor charged with disobedience, incitement to disobedience, spreading hate, and insulting Morocco's flag and symbols.

In its written judgment, the court held that al-Nguad "confessed that he was [the author] of the [Facebook] post calling for public protests, in which he participated, wearing black alongside other black-clad protesters, despite his previous knowledge that demonstrations require authorizations to be delivered by competent authorities."

The judgment also says that al-Nguad wrote in another Facebook post: "Congratulations to the noble royal Coast Guard, who killed Hayat while she was trying to emigrate clandestinely to flee the government, the corruption, and the kingdom of Morocco." The tribunal found that this post included "expressions inciting to hate and to calls for violence," and that the usage of the word "kingdom" in such a context was "a core insult to the country's flag and symbols."

Human Rights Watch reviewed the Facebook posts over which al-Nguad was indicted, and found nothing in them that supported the charges against him. He was imprisoned merely for criticizing the government and urging others to protest, speech protected by international human rights law, Human Rights Watch said. Moroccan law should not criminalize such acts. And as long as laws remain on the books that make such charges possible, authorities should refrain from bringing them.

"This unfair conviction is just the latest illustration of Morocco's increasing intolerance of peaceful protest," Whitson said. "Whenever social anger flares up, authorities promptly scapegoat and lock up activists who dared to challenge them, as a message meant to intimidate the public."

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