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Moroccan rights group warns over free speech after arrests

January 9, 2020 GMT
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Dozens of people gathered in front of Rabat Parliament to denounce the situation of freedom of speechin Rabat, Thursday Jan 9 2020. Authorities across Morocco escalated a nationwide persecution of dissenting voices during 2019 that has activists and rights associations worried over a growing state-control of free speech on social media, considered the last remaining venue for Moroccans to speak freely. (AP Photo/Nadine Achoui-Lesage)
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Dozens of people gathered in front of Rabat Parliament to denounce the situation of freedom of speechin Rabat, Thursday Jan 9 2020. Authorities across Morocco escalated a nationwide persecution of dissenting voices during 2019 that has activists and rights associations worried over a growing state-control of free speech on social media, considered the last remaining venue for Moroccans to speak freely. (AP Photo/Nadine Achoui-Lesage)

RABAT, Morocco (AP) — Leading Moroccan human rights activists warned Thursday of an assault on freedom of expression in the country following the arrest over recent months of 15 journalists, bloggers, rappers and social media users.

Supporters of the detainees organised a protest in front of the Parliament in Rabat to demand their release.

The protest followed the publication of a report by the National Solidarity Committee, which sought to chronicle how authorities across the North African country increasingly clamped down on dissent during 2019, particularly on social media, which is widely considered to be the last remaining forum for Moroccans to speak freely.

The 15 are either facing charges, are on trial or have been convicted for crimes varying from insulting the king or institutions, to posting the lyrics of a popular rap song called Long Live the People, whose singer is spending one year in prison.

The report said that in December alone, Moroccan courts convicted six people, including a high-school student. They were sentenced from six months to four years in prison for charges such as criticizing living conditions in Morocco on Facebook. Most recently, 19-year-old Hamza Asbaar from Southern Laayoune was sentenced to four years in prison for publishing a rap song deemed “offensive to sanctities.”

Verdicts on other cases are expected in the next few months.

The number of arrests related to free speech have more than doubled in the last two decades, said journalist and activist Omar Radi, who is facing a trial himself over a tweet he published that defended anti-government protesters.

Government spokesperson Hassan Abyaba told reporters Thursday that is a “difference between free speech and committing felonies. Any citizen, be it a doctor, a teacher or a journalist, who commits felonies are punished by the law.”