REPORTING FROM BEIRUT --- Morocco's political reforms are being tested in a court case involving a local rapper charged with insulting public officials in a song about police corruption and a YouTube video with a picture showing a police officer with the head of a donkey.
Rapper Mouad Belghouat, 24, known as Al Haqed or the Vengeful One, was arrested in late March and is in detention awaiting his April 25 appearance in a Casablanca court on charges of insulting the police. He could be sent to prison if convicted, according to news reports.
The case comes less than a year after Moroccans voted in favor of a new constitution put forward by King Mohammed VI that is supposed to guarantee freedom of expression.
New York-based watchdog Human Rights Watch on Wednesday called on Moroccan authorities to drop the charges and release Belghouat.
“This case is about freedom of expression, pure and simple,” Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement. “Every day that Belghouat spends in prison is a reminder of the distance between Morocco’s laws and practices and the rights guaranteed in its new constitution.”
The king proposed reforms in a bid to defuse pro-democracy demonstrations, and voters approved them in July. The king pledged that the reforms would enhance efforts to tackle corruption as well as affirm gender rights and freedom of expression.
But according to Human Rights Watch, Belghouat is being tried for “showing contempt” for “public servants in the exercise of their duty,” with the intention of “undermining their honor,” citing two articles in the Moroccan penal code.
The case revolves around a song Belghouat composed and recorded called "Kilab ed-Dowla"-- Dogs of the State-- and a YouTube video containing a photo montage set to the song in which a police officer is shown with a donkey head. The track blasts police corruption in Morocco.
Belghouat's lawyer has said that the photo montage set to the song was uploaded by someone else and the case is politically motivated. Human Rights Watch says a separate recording of “Kilab ed-Dowla" without the photo montages is available on YouTube.
Musicians have played a role in the uprisings that swept the Middle East and North Africa, and have at times been targeted.
Belghouat has tangled with authorities before. Last year he was convicted of beating a pro-government protester in a street incident and was jailed for four months. His supporters said the charges were a setup.
-- Alexandra Sandels
Photo: Moroccan rapper Mouad Belghouat along with protesters from Morocco's pro-democracy February 20 movement shout in front of City Hall on Saturday, Feb. 18, 2012, in Casablanca, Morocco. Credit: Abdeljalil Bounhar / Associated Press