Morocco, which was lauded for responding to last year's democracy protests with constitutional reforms and free elections, may be less of a model for the region than previously believed.
Critics of the monarchy say that the changes were merely cosmetic, intended to paint a rosy picture of the country overseas. A number of activists who were arrested and imprisoned during the protests have recently come forward with stories of torture by police.
After weeks of allegations from activists and the UN's special envoy on the issue, Morocco Justice Minister Mustapha Ramid unexpectedly admitted on Sept. 25 that police were responsible for “cases of abuse" at recent protests – after saying weeks ago on television that he couldn't recall any cases of political detention.
Juan Mendez, the United Nations' special rapporteur on torture, had previously denounced authorities' excessive use of force and said that torture was still frequent in the kingdom, which was praised for its conciliatory response when the uprisings sweeping across the region in 2011 reached Morocco.
The monarchy's rapid acquiescence to some of the demands for political reform of the Feb. 20 Movement, named for the first day of protests, arrested the movement's momentum.
In March, less than three weeks after the first protests began, King Mohamed VI announced a constitutional change that would give more power to both the parliament and the executive branch of government, but retain for the king his religious status and most of his power.
The new constitution was approved by more than 98 percent of voters.
Early parliamentary elections soon followed. The Islamist Party of Justice and Development won in what were described as the most transparent elections so far. A new constitution was adopted in July of that year.
But within the Moroccan legal and prison systems, there is little evidence of change. Judges refuse to investigate claims of abuse and there is no defense of the right to protest. The trials that do happen are often a farce, critics say.
According to the Moroccan Association of Human Rights, several hundred people have been arrested since the first nationwide pro-democracy protest on Feb. 20, 2011, and about 70 of them remain in jail. Many more wait for trial outside of jail or were detained only briefly.
They were officially detained for various reasons – insulting the police, boycotting the elections, even selling cigarettes without authorization.
Blogger and activist Larbi El Hilali, a famous blogger and activist in the Feb. 20 movement, says that the Moroccan regime is seizing the opportunity of the democracy movement's slowdown and international praise to crack down on protesters. A lack of media coverage has also helped.
"I feel that it tries to ensure it is not forced to bear the Feb. 20 Movement anymore. It brought a response and it estimates it has passed on to another sequence," Mr. El Hilali says.
Moroccan Association of Human Rights President Khadija Ryadi says the reforms were aimed at giving “a good image” of the country overseas.
“The Moroccan State doesn’t want to change things," she says. “It was under pressure with the protests. It wants to change the balance of strength with the repression and go back to the one before Feb. 20. It gave things, changed the balance, and now wants to take back what it has given.”
Authorities argue that protests, which have continued to occur regularly since the initial demonstrations, take place too often and without authorization. They deny the accusations that the activists were really imprisoned for their political activity and that the charges against them are just an excuse.
In a widely publicized trial, rap singer and activist Mouad Belghouate, known as El Haqed (The Spiteful), was sentenced to one year in jail for a song in which he “insulted” the police and for a video accompanying his song that was posted anonymously on YouTube. He insists he neither made the video nor posted it online.
Meanwhile, the treatment of prisoners, not just the grounds for their imprisonment, has garnered attention.
Three weeks ago, in Casablanca, six democracy activists testified at their trial that that they had been tortured and sexually abused by police. Two of the defendants said that police officers had inserted fingers and objects in their anus. One testified that an officer pulled his eyelashes to force him to say “long live the king.”
The activists were sentenced to up to 10 months in jail for insulting and assaulting police officers and for participating in an unauthorized protest.
Dozens of activists have gone on hunger strike while in jail to protest against torture and the conditions of their detention. Azzedine Erroussi, a radical left-wing activist from Taza, a town where protests were violently repressed last year, went on hunger strike for 135 days to denounce torture he suffered and to call for the release of all political prisoners in the country. He says he was forcefully injected with liquids to combat the effects of the hunger strike.