For the past ten months, the quiet port city of Al Hoceima has been the epicenter of protests that have set Morocco on edge. Thousands of people have taken to the streets since October 2016 to demand the construction of much need infrastructure, demilitarization of the region, and the release of more than 200 activists who have been unjustly imprisoned.
The demonstrations were sparked by the unfortunate fate of Mohcine Fikri, a fishmonger accused by local authorities of illegally selling swordfish. Police confiscated Mr. Fikri’s goods and disposed of them in a nearby garbage truck. Not wanting to lose business that day, Mr. Fikri climbed into the truck to salvage his wares, but was tragically crushed to death in the process. Outrage was directed at the authorities who were seen as prohibiting a merchant from making a living during a time of grinding poverty and government indifference.
The Moroccan government is keenly aware that the death of a simple merchant sparked the Arab Spring and with it the toppling of governments. The government has done its best to quell the protests through ordering curfews and mass arrests, but unrest continues. The death of a protestor earlier this month has reignited the rage of Moroccans.
While shocking, these events are just the latest chapter in Morocco’s history of repression. The Moroccan government has long denied its citizens basic fundamental human rights. The country’s most egregious ongoing violations occur in the territory of Western Sahara. Morocco occupied the region in 1975 after the withdrawal of the Spanish colonial administration. This move was contested by the Polisario Front, which engaged in sporadic armed conflict with the Moroccan government until a 1991 ceasefire. In 1998, Morocco agreed to let the Western Saharans settle the sovereignty issue via a referendum; however this referendum has yet to take place.
Within Western Sahara, Morocco significantly restricts freedom of expression and association, particularly around issues of Western Saharan independence. Numerous journalists and publishers have been prosecuted for criticizing the Moroccan government, leading to self-censorship amongst media outlets and bloggers.
One journalist who did not practice self-censorship was Mohamed al-Bambary. Mr. al-Bambary is a correspondent for Equipe Media, the most prominent independent news organization in Western Sahara. Journalists working with Equipe have faced significant harassment from the Moroccan authorities for documenting human rights abuses in Western Sahara. This is precisely what Mr. al-Bambary was doing in September 2011 in the city of Dakhla. Riots broke out in that city following a football match. It was unclear how the riot started, but shocking violence occurred, resulting in the death of seven people. Mr. al-Bambary filmed the burning of homes and shops and documented some of the brutal attacks that occurred.
On August 27, 2015, Mr. al-Bambary entered the Dakhla police station to renew his identification card. Instead, he was greeted with handcuffs. Authorities accused him of participating in the riots four years earlier, a charge he was not informed of until his trial in October 2015. He was sentenced to 12 years in prison at a trial that was closed to the public and where Mr. al-Bambary was forbidden from speaking. An appeal court later reduced his sentence to six years, which was still twice as long as any other individual sentenced for participating in the riots.
It has been two years since Mr. al-Bambary was arrested. He remains in prison, suffering from health problems brought on by hunger strikes. His unconditional release and the release of all political prisoners in Morocco would send a strong message that the government is listening to its people.