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MOROCCO: Ramadan 'protest picnickers' face prosecution

September 21, 2009 | 10:36 am

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Moroccan authorities are expected to prosecute a group arrested for organizing a forest picnic to protest a law that forbids Muslims from eating publicly during Ramadan fasting hours, media reports say.

Members of the Moroccan Alternative Movement for Individual Freedoms (MALI) had planned to hold the picnic on Sept. 13 in the woods near the town of Mohammedia, between the Moroccan capital Rabat and Casablanca. Word of the picnic was spread through a page on the social networking site Facebook. 

But as would-be picnickers arrived at the train station in Mohammedia, they were met by a large police squad that searched them and took the names and phone numbers of some of them, according to a statement issued by Human Rights Watch.

The Morocco Board News Service website carried a report saying said that more than 100 police officers, riot police and military personnel had "besieged" the train stations and nearby areas. The report said that 70 people had planned to attend the picnic but that only a dozen managed to get around the security presence. After the police encounter, the picnickers were forced back onto trains out of Mohammedia.  

According to HRW, Morocco’s state-run news agency, Maghreb Arabe Presse (MAP) issued a report on the “protest picnic” on Sept. 14, saying that local authorities and security services had stopped the event and that the promoters of the event would face prosecution.

Although no formal charges appear to have been filed against any of the organizers as of yet, the MAP report said that six Moroccan promoters of the picnic would be prosecuted.  

Police began making arrests on Sept. 15, according to HRW, detaining students Abderrahim Mouktafi and Ghassan Bouyaghrouni in their hometowns of Casablanca and Kenitra.

The same day, police also paid a visit to the Casablanca home of journalist Zeineb el-Rhazoui, another would-be participant. She was apparently the only one out of the six picnic promoters named in the MAP report. El-Rhazaoui, who was not home at the time of the police visit, has received death threats on her Facebook page, and her whereabouts are currently unknown, HRW said.

The forest picnic was to be a protest against Article 222 of the Moroccan penal code, which stipulates that:  “A person commonly known to be Muslim who violates the fast in a public place during Ramadan, without having one of the justifications allowed by Islam, shall be punished by one to six months of prison” and a fine. The law exempts non-Muslims.

The government-run news agency published on Sept. 15 a statement by the Mohammedia provincial council of Islamist scholars, the Oulema, condemning this “odious” act by “agitators” that “defies the teachings of God and the Prophet as well as the severe punishment that is its consequence.”  

The story has also been up for discussion and debate in the Moroccan blogosphere. In a post on the international blog community Global Voices entitled "Rage Against the Sandwich Continues," blogger Hisham summarized reactions from Moroccan bloggers this way: "The story sparked a passionate, often heated and at times offensive and polarizing debate in the Moroccan blogosphere and on social networks. Whilst the majority seems to be rejecting the non-observants' action, some have raised the question of freedom of conscience in a Muslim society."

MALI, meanwhile, emphasized in a statement that it did not seek to “provoke any community” and that the group is not “against Islam.” It’s goal, the group said, is to put focus on the contradictions between international law and Moroccan laws that “undermine individual freedoms.”

HRW has called on the Moroccan authorities to drop "all proceedings" against the group.

Morocco is not the first country to arrest non-fasters during this year's Ramadan. Egyptian media reported earlier this month that 155 people in the city of Aswan had been arrested for failing to fast during daylight hours in Ramadan.

-- Alexandra Sandels in Beirut

Photo: A man prepares food for people to break their fast during Ramadan. Credit: BBC

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