'Free everybody': Moroccans mobilise online for political prisoners
Issued on: Modified:
Over the last month and a half, Moroccan authorities have arrested eleven activists from the 20-February movement, including a famous rapper. The arrests sparked a public outcry that played out both in the streets and online. Soon, activists began using the slogan “Free Koulchi” (free everybody) to call for the release of all political prisoners, not just those arrested in the past few months.
Screenshot of a video of a “Free Koulchi” flashmob.
Over the last month and a half, Moroccan authorities have arrested eleven activists from the 20-February movement, including a famous rapper. The arrests sparked a public outcry that played out both in the streets and online. As the movement gained momentum, it transformed, and activists began to use the slogan “Free Koulchi” (free everybody), calling for the release of all political prisoners, not just those arrested in the past few months.
The arrests that sparked the protest happened during a labor march organised by Morocco’s three largest unions, which took place on April 6 in Casablanca. While the protest itself was condoned by authorities, they say that it quickly got out of hand. The 20-February activists (adherents of a movement born of the Arab Spring) were arrested on accusations of "illegally demonstrating," according to a human rights lawyer cited in the Washington Post. Fellow activists said they were also arrested on charges of “violence against an on-duty officer,” though the real reason may have been that they were singing anti-monarchy anthems.
Those arrrested were swiftly tried and handed sentences ranging from six months to one year in prison.
Many young Moroccans have mobilised both online and via flashmobs to condemn these arrests, in particular that of Ayoub Boudad (known as “Bart Simpson”), a 19-year-old student and figurehead of the movement. The hashtag #freesimpson refers to his case in particular.
Ayoub Boudad, 19, is nicknamed Bart Simpson. Activists are mobilising support for the jailed young man with the hashtag #FreeSimpson. Photo from a Facebook page supporting the young activist.
The arrests continued. On May 22, the rapper Mouad Belghouat (known as “Al-Haqed”, or “the grudge-holder”) was arrested at the Casablanca stadium on charges of “scalping tickets”. This 24-year-old rapper, who is known for his aggressive protest songs against Morocco’s royal power, has already been to jail twice, most recently in January 2012.
Video showing the arrest of rapper Al-Haqed.
It was after Al-Haqed’s arrest that the movement’s credo was transformed: activists using social media initiated the slogan “Free Koulchi,” which means, in the Moroccan dialect, 'free everybody'.
“Officially, the detainees are common law prisoners”
Khadija Riyadi is an activist for the Moroccan Association for Human Rights (AMDH) and a member of the “Free Koulchi” campaign.
For the young people who were arrested, this is neither their first protest nor their first arrest. For some time now, the police have been systematically targeting young people participating in protests, even when these protests have government authorisation. They target the figureheads of the [20-February] movement in particular in an attempt to discourage others from joining up. Their message is clear: you are jeopardising your future if you get involved in politics. We needed to protest the arrests of all activists, not just the leaders of the movement.
Video made for the “Free Koulchi” campaign.
The demographics of the political opposition in Morocco have been changing over the last few years, thanks in particular to the 20-February movement. In the past, the opposition was made up of educated and politicised elite that was not always representative of society as a whole. Nowadays, political prisoners often come from the most disadvantaged and marginalised social groups. They hail from lower-income neighbourhoods of large cities and sometimes even from remote villages. Many are unemployed young people with no hope for the future, who are not linked the 20-February movement but who spontaneously go out in the streets to protest the system. These people are also the most vulnerable to the abuse of public power, because they often do not know their rights and the police can make them sign all kinds of confessions. So we are also demanding the liberation of these anonymous individuals.
“At least, before, activists were judged for what they really did”
There are an estimated 300 political prisoners in Morocco, but most of them are being held as common law prisoners. The police fabricate baseless accusations in order to sentence the detainees, as they did in the case of the most recent arrests. This is a new practice in Morocco; at least, before, activists were judged for what they really did, such as chanting certain slogans, for instance.
The 20-February movement started during the “Arab Spring”, but the Moroccan authorities limited its reach by organising a referendum on constitutional reform in June 2011. However, political and social opposition groups are still active in Morocco, in particular through environmental protection movements.