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.
The report, Shadow of Impunity: Torture in Morocco and Western Sahara, reveals a darker reality to the liberal image presented by Morocco’s leaders when in 2011 they responded to popular uprisings in the region by promising to pursue a raft of progressive reforms and a new constitution prohibiting torture.
“Morocco’s leaders portray the image of a liberal, human rights-friendly country. But as long as the threat of torture hangs over detention and dissent that image will just be a mirage,” said Salil Shetty, Secretary General of Amnesty International. “Scratch at the surface and you will find torture being used to silence protest and torture-tainted convictions in courts. Whether you challenge inequality or stand up for what you believe, you could be a target for violence and torture.”
The report draws on 173 cases of alleged torture and other ill-treatment of men, women and children by police and security forces between 2010 and 2014.
Torture victims include students, political activists with left-wing or Islamist affiliations and supporters of self-determination for Western Sahara as well as people suspected of terrorism or ordinary crimes.
The report shows people at risk of torture from the moment of arrest and throughout police custody. Too often, courts turn a blind eye to complaints and hand down torture-tainted convictions.
Some who dare to complain and seek justice are even prosecuted for “slander” and “false reporting”. Impunity continues unabated, in spite of the authorities’ pledges to uphold human rights.
Tortured in detention – forced to “confess”
The report documents brutal torture techniques security forces use on detainees in custody, such as stress positions like the “roast chicken” – suspending detainees from an iron bar by their wrists and knees.
Mohamed Ali Saidi, 27, was one of several Sahrawis who reported that police tortured him in custody after arresting him in relation to protests in Laayoune, Western Sahara, days earlier in May 2013. He told Amnesty International:
“They threatened to rape me with a bottle – they brought the bottle in front of me. It was a glass bottle of Pom’s [popular Moroccan soft drink]… They whipped the soles of my feet with ropes, while I was suspended in the roast chicken position, and they also dipped our feet in iced water… While I was suspended in the roast chicken position, they put a towel in my mouth and choked me by pouring water up my nose. Then they poured urine. Then they… took my clothes off except my underwear, and whipped me on the thighs with belts.”
French-Algerian national Abdelaziz Redaouia, 34, said officers tortured him for refusing to sign an interrogation report incriminating him in drugs offences after his arrest in December 2013:
“I refused to sign the interrogation report, so they hit me again. They hooked a handcuff inside my cheek and yanked at it like they were going to pierce my skin.”
He said the officers forced his head under water, used a car battery to give him electric shocks on his genitals, and beat the soles of his feet while he was suspended.
Protesters and bystanders abused
The report says security forces display a brazen sense of impunity, beating protesters in plain sight to send a warning message to others. It documents dozens of cases of police brutality against demonstrators and bystanders in broad daylight and in vehicles.
Student demonstrator Abderrazak Jkaou said police beat him unconscious on campus on the eve of a protest in Kenitra:
“Some carried long wooden sticks. They beat me from head to toe. Then a plainclothes officer gripped a handcuff in his fist and punched me between the eyes. I was knocked out and fell. Then the others came and stamped on my bladder until I urinated. They beat me until I passed out, then threw me outside the campus, as a warning to other students. The students thought I was dead.”
While some who reported being arrested and tortured were known activists, others were mere bystanders. Khadija, whose name has been changed for her protection, described how police assaulted her as she walked past a campus protest in Fes in 2014:
“Riot police came up to me from behind and tripped me. I fell and they tore my headscarf off and hit me. Then they dragged me by the legs, face down, to their van. Inside, about 10 more officers were waiting. That's when they hit me the hardest.”
System protects the torturers, not the tortured
The report also warns of an alarming new development: the use of “false reporting” and “slander” laws to prosecute alleged torture victims who speak out about their ordeal. Moroccan authorities have launched eight prosecutions under these laws against people who filed torture complaints over the past 12 months.
Under Moroccan law, “false reporting” can be punished with up to one year in prison and a fine of around US$500, and “slander” with up to five years in jail. Meanwhile, courts can order defendants to pay large sums as compensation for “slander” and “defamation”.
In 2014, two young activists, Wafae Charaf and Oussama Housne, were convicted and sentenced to two and three year prison terms respectively for making “false allegations” and “slander” after they complained that they had been tortured. They had not even identified the alleged torturers.
Four of those prosecuted by Moroccan authorities had filed complaints in French courts in their capacity as dual nationals or spouses of French nationals. Such lawsuits may become impossible if France's parliament approves a current move to end the competence of French courts over abuses in Morocco.
“Morocco is at a crossroads: it can go down the route of having a justice system robust enough to take on human rights abusers, or one that shields them. The government speaks of reform, but the authorities seem more interested in enforcing anti-slander laws than anti-torture laws. If things are to change, we need to see the torturers in court, not the tortured. Those who speak out should be protected, not prosecuted,” said Salil Shetty.
Presented with a preliminary assessment of the report’s findings, the Moroccan government issued a lengthy response categorically rejecting them. The response presented official efforts to combat torture, including planned legal reforms. However, it failed to address key issues raised by Amnesty International about specific torture claims, such as the overwhelming lack of adequate investigations into them.
“The government claims torture is a thing of the past. While it has taken some steps, even one single case of torture represents a grave failure. We have documented 173 across Morocco and Western Sahara, and from all walks of life,” said Salil Shetty. “Moroccan law prohibits torture, but for this to have any meaning in practice, the authorities should properly investigate allegations rather than dismiss them from the outset.”
This report is part of Amnesty International’s Stop Torture campaign to combat a “global crisis on torture”, launched in May 2014 and follows reports on torture in Mexico, Nigeria, The Philippines and Uzbekistan.
Amnesty International’s 2014 annual report on human rights in 160 countries reported torture and other ill-treatment in 82% of countries covered (131 out of 160).