Younes Benkhdim, a political detainee and poet, will today enter his third week on hunger strike in an attempt to levy rights for imprisoned political activists in Morocco. Nicknamed the “Poet of the People”, Benkhdim was handed a two-year sentence and a 5,000 dirham ($1400) fine earlier this year for his political dissent as part of the February 20 Movement (Feb20), the Moroccan pro-reform group.
Dignity or death
From his cell in Oukacha, Casablanca, Benkhdim issued a clear set of demands. He first requested “the release of all prisoners of conscience, first and foremost those activists from the Mouvement du 20 Février” – a number estimated to be around 70 by Moroccan human rights groups. Next Benkhdim demanded “the opening of a judicial inquiry into the torture to which these activists were subjected and the implementation of legal actions against their torturers”.
His requests reflect the indignation felt by many over the government’s increased suppression of free speech and peaceful protest during the last twelve months. Indeed, state surveillance coupled with disproportionate punishment for political and anti-monarchy dissent is manifestly on the rise in Morocco.
In May, the rapper Mouad Belghouate, known asEl Haqed(“The Indignant One”), was sentenced to a year’s imprisonment and given a 1,000 dirham ($300) fine for “insulting a police officer in the exercise of his duties”, after a video of him was uploaded to YouTube and deemed inflammatory by authorities. Occupying a neighboring cell to Benkhdim in Oukacha, in July Belghouate also attempted a hunger strike (subsequently aborted) to protest the conditions of his detention.
More sobering still is the account offered by five activists arrested at the July 22 demonstration in Casablanca. In an open letter, the five members of the Feb 20 Movement detailed the abuse they were subjected to in police custody - signed confessions were obtained through torture, they had objects inserted into their anus, and fingernails and eyelashes were ripped out.
Check out this piece I was interviewed for. Glad this is getting more coverage in anglophone press.