Wednesday, January 27, 2021

"We call on the Moroccan authorities to stop abusing criminal law or administrative regulations on the receipt of foreign funding as a means to target independent human rights associations or journalists, and to ensure that civil society organizations can work in a safe and enabling environment," said Amna Guellali

The Moroccan authorities must immediately and unconditionally release human rights defender Maati Monjib, and drop all charges against him including from a previous trial ongoing since 2015 in relation to his work on freedom of expression, Amnesty International said today. Following years of unlawful digital surveillance and judicial harassment, Monjib was detained on 29 December and his next investigation session before an investigative judge is scheduled for 27 January.

In November 2020 and January 2021 letters to Amnesty International published here as a right to reply, the Moroccan government denied that Monjib was targeted for his human rights work, yet unwittingly provided detail appearing to corroborate that very fact by referring to foreign funding he had received to organize workshops promoting the right to freedom of expression. Amnesty International believes the charges against him are linked to activities protected by the right to freedom of association which do not warrant prosecution or detention.

"Maati Monjib is the latest victim of the government's campaign to silence critics and as a prisoner of conscience must be freed immediately and unconditionally. Since giving a high-profile media interview criticizing Morocco’s internal intelligence agency for repressing political opponents, Monjib has faced first police harassment and now a show trial,” said Amna Guellali, Amnesty International's Deputy Regional Director for the Middle East and North Africa.

"This is just the latest chapter in the Moroccan authorities’ relentless quest to curtail Monjib’s right to freedom of expression and bully him into submission. We call on Moroccan authorities to immediately and permanently halt the harassment and intimidation of this brave human rights defender by dropping all charges against him and opening a robust, independent and transparent investigation into the unlawful digital surveillance Monjib was subjected to for years.”

Often critical of the Moroccan authorities’ infringement of human rights, academic Monjib had already faced trumped-up charges and prosecution against him five years ago in 2015. On 7 October 2020, the prosecutor’s office at the Rabat Court of First Instance, following a referral from the Financial Information Processing Unit, opened a new investigation against Monjib for alleged embezzlement and money laundering. Prior to his arrest, the judicial police in Rabat and Casablanca had summoned Monjib on multiple occasions for investigations in relation to these charges. 

Monjib’s lawyers have not been given access to the evidence brought against him for this new case until the hearing day, when they were able to read some of the elements in the judicial file. They were denied a copy of it to date, in a breach of international fair trials rights.

In both of the letters sent to Amnesty International, the Moroccan government denied any link between the new prosecution and Monjib's critical views. They insisted that both the trial in 2015 and the prosecution initiated in October 2020 were for “criminal offences” unrelated to Monjib's activities as a human rights defender. Yet in their letter, the Moroccan authorities themselves made the link between the 2015 case and the new case brought in 2020, by referencing foreign money transfers received by Monjib in 2015 and 2016 to fund his research center the Ibn Rochd center. The letter went on to list donor reports by Free Press Unlimited and the Dutch embassy, indicating that once again the investigation was focusing on the receipt of foreign funding for legitimate human rights work.

In 2015, Moroccan authorities had brought bogus charges against him and six other defendants for their receipt of foreign funds from the non-governmental organization Free Press Unlimited to conduct training sessions for StoryMaker, a secure storytelling app which enables citizen journalists to publish content anonymously if they wish to. In that case, Monjib is being tried for “undermining the internal security of the state,” a vague and overly broad charge, “fraud" for failing to declare foreign funds under the Moroccan association law, which he denies and in any case does not warrant criminal prosecution under the Moroccan law but only entails suspension or dissolution of the association. The third charge of “exercising an activity not specified in the statues” of the association is not recognized under international law as an offense.

International human rights law considers that deprivation of liberty is arbitrary when it results from the exercise of human rights, including the rights to freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly. According to the UN Human Rights Committee, “arbitrariness” must be interpreted broadly to include elements of inappropriateness, injustice, lack of predictability and due process of law.

Under international human rights law, the right to freedom of association includes NGOs’ capacity to engage in fundraising activities and to seek, receive and utilize resources from national, foreign and international sources. Restrictions on foreign funding that impede the ability of associations to pursue their statutory activities constitute an undue interference with Article 22 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Morocco is a party.

None of the international NGOs or donor entities which funded Monjib's legitimate activities ever raised concerns about the mismanagement of their resources. In a statement released on 15 January, the Netherlands based NGO Free Press Unlimited stated that Monjib was a highly respected partner and that he should not be in prison.

"We call on the Moroccan authorities to stop abusing criminal law or administrative regulations on the receipt of foreign funding as a means to target independent human rights associations or journalists, and to ensure that civil society organizations can work in a safe and enabling environment," said Amna Guellali.

In October 2019, an Amnesty International investigation revealed how Monjib had been subjected to unlawful digital surveillance using NSO Group spyware since at least 2017. These attacks included SMS messages carrying malicious links that, if clicked, would attempt to install spyware on the victim’s phone. In response, Monjib and other activists similarly targeted filed a complaint to the National Committee for the Protection of Personal Information (CNDP) demanding an investigation into the surveillance. He has yet to receive a response. Prior to his arrest, Monjib told Amnesty International that he had been under constant surveillance, including police watching his house, and plain-clothes police officers following him whenever he went out.

This arrest comes as the Moroccan government’s human rights record continues to deteriorate, with the government prosecuting dozens of people over the past two years, including journalists, YouTubers, artists and activists who have expressed their opinions online or offline. On 29 July, authorities arrested another prominent journalist, Omar Radi, on charges of sexual assault, rape, “undermining external state security” and “harming internal security,” after subjecting him to digital surveillance attacks. He has been in detention since then, awaiting trial.