Morocco/Western Sahara


Morocco and Western Sahara 

Kingdom of Morocco


The Kingdom of Morocco is a North African state bordering the Atlantic Ocean and Mediterranean Sea on its water border and between Algeria and Mauritania on its land borders. Morocco is home to 36.9 million people. 99% of the population is Arab-Berber and is predominantly Muslim (99%), with about 1% practicing Christianity, Judaism, and Baha’ism. Morocco has occupied Western Sahara territory since the late 1970s. As of 2021, Morocco occupies three-fourths of Western Sahara via annexation.



The hopes and aspirations that emerged with the Arab Spring ten years ago have steadily faded with the ever-increasing clamping down on freedom of expression. Journalists, citizen journalists, bloggers and anyone posting on media and social media can be subjected to arrest, arbitrary detention, harassment, threats, torture, imprisonment.

In the aftermath of the Rif protests in 2017 and the still unresolved Western Sahara issue. Following the protests that took place in Morocco’s northern Rif region in 2017 that resulted in sentences that violate Morocco’s basic tenets of the rule of law and equal justice, there has been a wave of pushback from the media. Multiple journalists who criticized the harsh sentences themselves became targets of the criminal justice system and sentenced to harsh sentences for their criticisms. The Moroccan government often utilizes the Penal Code to place charges of money laundering or sexual crimes, with limited evidence to prove the charges. Recently the case of human rights defender and historian, Maati Monjib, who was sentenced to a year in prison in January 2021 on charges of money laundering, was resolved when Maati Monjib was released following a 20-day hunger strike on March 23, 2021.

The Western Sahara remains difficult to monitor as access to the Western Sahara region has grown increasingly difficult for external monitors as the human rights situation has continued to deteriorate. In 2020, Moroccan authorities prevented at least nine lawyers, activists, and politicians from access to Western Sahara. Journalists have also been denied access. As confrontations between Morocco and the Polisario escalate, both local human rights activists and supporters of Sahrawi self-determination are coming under increased pressure.

In January, Morocco passed laws adding the waters off the coast of the disputed Western Sahara land to its maritime territory, extending its jurisdiction over the waters from Tangier city in the north to Lagouira town on the Mauritanian border.

On 20 March, the government declared a state of health emergency that remained in place until the end of the year. It also imposed a national lockdown which was gradually lifted in June and replaced by a set of measures including restrictions on movement and area-specific lockdowns.

In October, the UN renewed the UN Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara’s mandate until October 2021, without granting it a human rights component unlike most other UN peacekeeping missions. The territory of the Western Sahara and the Polisario camps remained inaccessible for human rights organizations, making it difficult to monitor human rights abuses.

In December, the government signed a deal with the USA agreeing to establish full diplomatic relations with Israel in exchange for the USA’s official recognition of Moroccan sovereignty over the Western Sahara.


Death penalty

Courts continued to hand down death sentences; there had been no executions since 1993.


Freedom of assembly, association, and expression

The authorities continued their crackdown on freedom of expression in Morocco and Western Sahara, investigating and prosecuting a number of journalists and activists for their online posts.

In January, courts around the country sentenced at least nine individuals, including rappers and activists, to between six months and four years in prison, for their online speech on YouTube and Facebook. All were accused of “offending” public officials or institutions under the Penal Code.

In May, Sahrawi journalist and human rights activist Ibrahim Amrikli was arrested in Laayoune, in Western Sahara, and detained for over two days.3 Security officers interrogated him about his work for Sahrawi human rights organization Nushatta Foundation and repeatedly beat and insulted him. They forced him to sign a “confession” to trumped-up charges of throwing stones at police officers in April. Two days later, he was charged with “breaking orders related to the health emergency status” and “offending public officials” under Article 263 of the Penal Code. His trial opened on 18 November but was postponed to an unknown date.

In July, an Amnesty International report revealed that the phone of independent journalist Omar Radi had been hacked using surveillance technology produced by the Israeli company NSO Group. After the report was published, Omar Radi was summoned for police interrogation several times and a state media smear campaign accused him of espionage. On 29 July, the Prosecutor of the Appeals Court in Casablanca charged him with sexual assault, rape, “undermining external state security” and “harming internal security” – all charges he vehemently denied – under provisions in the Penal Code. He was placed in pre-trial detention, where he remained at the end of the year.

In July, police in Laayoune arbitrarily detained Algargarat Media’s founder Essabi Yahdih for 10 hours when he went to the police station to obtain an administrative certificate, before releasing him without charge. He said that police insulted and threatened him with “arrest, rape and murder” and interrogated him about Algargarat’s editorial line, its staff and funding as well as his personal online posts, specifically a post that mocked another post by a Moroccan parliamentarian about the King.

In December, following years of harassment and unlawful surveillance, academic and human rights defender Maati Monjib was arrested arbitrarily and detained. He and members of his family were accused of money laundering and he was awaiting trial at the end of the year.


Freedom of religion

Moroccan law continued to criminalize “insulting Islam”, which can be punishable by a prison sentence. In May, Casablanca police arrested actor Rafik Boubker for a video posted on Facebook in which he mocked Islamic rituals. He was charged with “insulting Islam” and released the next day. His trial opened in November and was postponed several times. In July, a court in the city of Safi in western Morocco sentenced Muhammed Awatif Qashqash to six months in prison and a fine, under the same provision, for a caricature he posted online depicting religious figures, including the Prophet Mohammed.


Repression of dissent

The authorities used the health emergency to pass restrictive legislation. In March, Parliament passed Law No. 2.20.292 which set penalties of a three-month prison sentence and a fine of MAD1,300 (around US$146) for anyone breaching “orders and decisions taken by public authorities” and for anyone “obstructing” those decisions through “writing, publications or photos”. Since its adoption, the authorities have used the new law to prosecute at least five human rights activists and citizen journalists for criticizing the government’s COVID-19 response, accusing them of “incitement to violate the authorities’ decisions”.

In April, authorities prosecuted and detained Mohamed Bouzrou, Mohamed Chejii and Lahssen Lemrabti, administrators of the Facebook news page Fazaz 24, for two posts that criticized the local authorities’ handling of COVID-19. Mohamed Chejii was released soon after his arrest though his trial continued, but Mohamed Bouzrou and Lahssen Lemrabti remained in detention.

In April, police in Nador in the north-eastern Rif region arrested Omar Naji, the local representative of the Moroccan Association for Human Rights (AMDH), and prosecuted him for spreading “false allegations or lies” with the aim of “harming privacy or defamation”, as well as for breaching the health emergency law. He was arrested after he published a post on social media criticizing Nador authorities for confiscating merchandise from unauthorized vendors during the pandemic and released the following day on bail. On 17 November, the First Instance Court in Nador acquitted him of all charges.


Right to health

Health workers

In August, doctors began a national strike to denounce their poor working conditions, the absence of minimum protection measures for health workers, and the lack of medical treatment or proper confinement for frontline workers who contracted the virus.

In August, the Health Ministry suspended annual leave for doctors and other medical staff in public hospitals, forcing them to work without a break to meet the demands caused by COVID-19. Hundreds of doctors demonstrated around the country in protest against the move.


Women’s and girls’ rights

Women continued to face discrimination in law and practice as well as sexual and other gender-based violence. Although Morocco adopted Law 103-13 for the Prevention of Violence against Women in 2018, mechanisms for its implementation remained weak. The Law requires victims to file for criminal prosecution to obtain orders of protection, which became virtually impossible under the COVID-19 lockdown.

Women’s organizations such as Mobilizing for Rights Associates (MRA) reported an increase of problems for women suffering violence during lockdown, including being confined with their abusers, often without access to means of communication, and difficulty accessing shelters. Between 20 March and 20 April, the number of prosecutions for violence against women fell to one-tenth of the monthly average, according to the Chief Prosecutor. The authorities said this was because of “the stability of the Moroccan family”. However, MRA attributed the decrease to difficulties women faced in accessing justice during the lockdown.


Torture and other ill-treatment

Prisoners were held in harsh conditions, including prolonged and indefinite solitary confinement, in violation of the prohibition of torture and other ill-treatment. Despite the elevated risks of COVID-19 transmission in prisons and other places of detention, authorities imprisoned people solely for breaching restrictions imposed in the context of the pandemic.

Between April and August, the King issued four royal pardons for a total of 8,133 detainees, including 20 activists from the Hirak El-Rif social justice movement.

In August, Nasser Zefzafi and Nabil Ahamjik, leaders of Hirak El-Rif, staged a 25-day hunger strike to protest against the denial of family visits and the scattering of Hirak El-Rif detainees in different prisons inaccessible to their families.

Sulaiman Raissouni, a journalist and editor of Akhbar Al Yaoum, was detained from May until the end of the year, and was permitted only one hour a day to walk alone in the courtyard.

Authorities continued to hold 19 Sahrawi activists in prisons in Ait Melloul and Bouizarkane in south-west Morocco, after they were convicted following unfair trials in 2013 and 2017 that failed to adequately investigate torture allegations. They were held hundreds of kilometres from their families and, due to the COVID-19 restrictions, were not permitted family visits.


Rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTQIA+) people

Article 489 of the Penal Code continued to criminalize consensual same-sex sexual relations.

Authorities failed to investigate incitement to violence against LGBTI people or to provide people protection regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity.

In April, in an apparent campaign, a number of individuals forcibly “outed” people on same-sex dating apps, disclosing their sexual orientation or gender identity without their consent. LGBTI organizations reported that this “outing” campaign led to people being assaulted and threatened, as well as a Facebook group in Agadir calling for people to lynch LGBTI sex workers. The authorities failed to publicly condemn this, and the state media failed to report on it.


Rights of refugees and migrants

The authorities continued to arrest, detain and deport migrants throughout the year. In early 2020, the Spanish governmental delegation in Melilla, Spain, announced the intention to end the migratory route between the northern coast of Morocco and Spain, and the Moroccan authorities reported their arrests of migrants near the border with Ceuta. Several NGOs reported an absence of COVID-19 protection measures in migrant detention centres in Nador and Laayoune. According to the AMDH, around 100 migrants were detained for over a week in Nador in May without access to a lawyer in violation of Law 02-03 of 2003 on the entry and stay of foreigners, which stipulates that after 24 hours of detention, irregular migrants must be put under judicial control and given access to a lawyer.


Western Sahara

Polisario Front camps

The Polisario Front, which calls for the independence of Western Sahara and has set up a self-proclaimed government in exile, detained at least one critic in the camps it administers in Algeria. On 8 August, police in the camps held citizen journalist Mahmoud Zeidan for 24 hours, interrogating him about posts he published online that criticized the way camp authorities handled COVID-19 aid distribution.

The Polisario Front failed to ensure that those responsible for committing human rights abuses in the camps in previous decades were brought to account.

Morocco/Western Sahara News

October 9, 2019 • Report

Human Rights Defenders in Morocco Targeted Using Malicious NSO Israeli Spyware

Two prominent human rights defenders in Morocco have been targeted using surveillance technology developed by the Israeli-based company NSO Group, according to new research published by Amnesty Tech today.

February 26, 2019 • Report

Human rights in the Middle East and North Africa: A review of 2018

The international community’s chilling complacency towards wide-scale human rights violations in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) has emboldened governments to commit appalling violations during 2018 by giving them …

February 18, 2016 • Report

Amnesty International State of the World 2015-2016

International protection of human rights is in danger of unravelling as short-term national self-interest and draconian security crackdowns have led to a wholesale assault on basic freedoms and rights, warned Amnesty International as it launched its annual assessment of human rights around the world. “Your rights are in jeopardy: they are being treated with utter contempt by many governments around the world,” said Salil Shetty, Secretary General of Amnesty International.

May 18, 2015 • Report

Shadow of Impunity: Torture in Morocco and Western Sahara

Beatings, stress positions, asphyxiation, simulated drowning, psychological and sexual violence are among an array of torture techniques used by Moroccan security forces to extract “confessions” to crimes or silence activists and crush dissent, according to a new Amnesty International report published today.

February 25, 2015 • Report

State of the World 2014/2015

This has been a devastating year for those seeking to stand up for human rights and for those caught up in the suffering of war zones. Governments pay lip service to the importance of protecting civilians. And yet the world's politicians have miserably failed to protect those in greatest need. Amnesty International believes that this can and must finally change.

September 26, 2014 • Report

My Body My Rights

All over the world, people are coerced, criminalized and discriminated against, simply for making choices about their bodies and their lives. In the face of these continuing violations, Amnesty International launches MY BODY MY RIGHTS, a new global campaign to defend sexual and reproductive rights for all.

May 21, 2013 • Report

Annual Report: Morocco/Western Sahara 2013

Kingdom of Morocco Head of state King Mohamed VI Head of government Abdelilah Benkirane The authorities restricted freedom of expression and prosecuted critics of the monarchy and state institutions as …

July 13, 2011 • Report

Annual Report: Morocco/Western Sahara 2011

Head of state: King Mohamed VI Head of government: Abbas El Fassi Death penalty: abolitionist in practice Population: 32.4 million Life expectancy: 71.8 years Under-5 mortality (m/f): 43/29 per 1,000 …

March 26, 2011 • Report

Morocco/Western Sahara: Broken Promises: The Equity and Reconciliation Commission and its Follow-up

This report provides an assessment by Amnesty International of the work of the Equity and Reconciliation Commission and the...

March 26, 2011 • Report

Morocco/Western Sahara: No more half measures: Addressing enforced disappearances in Morocco and Western Sahara

In a significant break with the past in Morocco and Western Sahara, King Mohamed VI established the Equity and...