In Morocco, Two Years After the Hirak Protests, the Ordeal of the Prisoners’ Families

Every other Wednesday, the mothers, wives and sisters of the last 39 Hirak protestors still jailed in Casablanca travel 1200 kilometres from the Rif by bus to visit their loved ones. With the help of the Committee for the Support of Hirak Prisoners’ Families, they struggle to improve their conditions of detention and cope with their own hardships at home.

Rhimou Saidi, the mother of detainee Mohammed Jelloul, on the bus that takes her back to Al-Hoceima on 28 October 2018.
© Youssef Afas

The sun was beating down on the barbed wire, the ochre watchtower and the blue walls of Ain Sebaâ prison, located in the Oukacha industrial estate, twenty minutes from central Casablanca, when a black minibus pulled up near the entrance. On that Wednesday morning, 28 November, some 15 women, a few children and a handful of men scrambled out of the van to visit their loved ones. The same scene has been recurring twice a month for the past two years. They had left Al Hoceima at 8 PM the night before and endured a non-stop ten-hour journey to profit by every minute of visiting time.

Between May and July 2017, the police arrested hundreds of Hirak protestors, the mass movement which had begun in October 2016, following the tragic death of Mouhcine Fikri in Al Hoceima, capital of the Rif. The fishmonger had been crushed to death in a refuse collection lorry while trying to recover his wares, confiscated by the authorities. The protests that followed were aimed, among other targets, at the spread of corruption, the marginalisation of the north-west region and the lack of hospitals and universities there. Today, 39 protestors are still being held far from their homes, in Casablanca, where Moroccan political prisoners are habitually incarcerated. Their appeal trial began almost three months ago, on November 14, 2018, and three hearings have already been held.

“My boy deserves a medal”

Leaving the prison around 1 PM, the women from the Rif, who had just spent two hours in the visiting room, were better inclined to talk to us, despite the inquisitive gazes of the police officers tagging along behind them. “It’s OK, he’s all right,” Oulaya whispers. She is the mother of Nabil Hamjike, serving a term of twenty years. “But he has no business being in there, he didn’t steal any money, they were just demanding their rights. My boy deserves a medal, not a jail sentence!” proclaimed the sixty-year-old woman who calls all the prisoners “my sons.” Seated in a small café across from the detention centre, we ordered tubs of chips and sandwiches. Hanane, 31, Mohamed Harki’s sister, was more worried: he stands to get 15 years. Her brother went on a hunger strike to demand enrolment for a master’s degree which he has since obtained. And there was Souad, wife of Karim Amghar, serving ten years. She had his son on her lap. The baby was born just two months after his father was arrested, and has never seen him except behind bars. “It’s hard on him, in the bus he never stops crying, ” she says. But the young mother insists he come with her from time to time.

Since the prisoners were transferred to Oukacha, soon after their arrest, the National Council on Human Rights (NCHR), a body relatively independent from the State, managed to get three minibuses provided free of charge every other Wednesday by the regional council of Casablanca. In the beginning, some families managed to come every Wednesday for the weekly visits, but at a cost of 300 dinars ($32, £24) per person, and few could afford the trip. All told us of the fatigue they endure, the swollen calves, the freezing cold, the vomiting. But while some have spaced out their trips, none have given them up altogether.

A premiere for many women

A few days earlier, on Friday 16 November, in the spacious Casablanca apartment of Amina Khalid, a member of the Support Committee, we met with Rhimou Saidi, mother of Mohamed Jelloul, the very first activist to be arrested during the Rif protests. This widow of 68 is from Beni Bouatach, a town near Al Hoceima, and has become an icon of the movement. With her disarming smile and the determined look in her eye, she has never missed a bus trip. Until a few months ago, she spoke only Tarafit (the dialect of the Rif) but now speaks Darija, Moroccan dialectical Arabic and has become used to giving interviews. Her son had already been arrested and spent five years in jail for his participation in the 20-February Movement. “When he got out, I had hardly a month to see him before he was arrested again. There was a complete blackout,” she remembered. “He hadn’t even been involved in those protests!” Since then, Rhimou Saadi assured us she has become aware of the injustice and realised everything her son told her was the truth. “Before the death of Mouhcine Fikri, I never went to a demo.” Indeed, it was a first for many women of the Rif who tend to be quite conservative and keep to their homes.

“Casablanca is like New York”

For a majority of the prisoners’ relatives, coming to the Casablanca megapole was also a grand premiere. “For them, it was like going to New York,” Amina Khalid observed, who had done her best to show them around and make them welcome. Created in May 2017, the Support Committee has organised protests and sit-ins. “We wanted to publicise the situation of the Hirak prisoners’ families and provide them with moral and material support,” another member of the organisation, Amina Boukhakal explained. The local activists have put them in touch with barristers, organised a collection of warm clothing, made room for them to stay in their homes. Bit it was not an easy relationship at first. “We had to win their trust, tell them what we ourselves had gone through in the past,” Amina Khalid explained, “because people from the Rif tend to be standoffish, they couldn’t figure out why we were helping them.”

It must be said that for decades now, the Moroccan government has sought to marginalise that region on account of its rebellious past. From 1921 to 1926, before the Franco-Spanish reconquest, the Republic of the Rif, under the leadership of Abdelkrim Al-Khattabi, was one of the continent’s few independent states. A rebellious frame of mind remains deeply rooted in the collective memory and nor has the State forgotten. In 1959, in reprisal for an uprising, the region was bombed with napalm, killing some 10,000 civilians. In 1984, King Hassan II insulted a protest movement in the Rif, calling the protestors “awbash” which mean “savages.” “He humiliated us,” Jelloul’s mother concluded.

Women activists during the “years of lead”

The families are also in touch with doctors belonging to the Medical Association for the Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence. They provide precious aid to a region which has the highest rate of cancer in Morocco, probably because of the Spanish use of mustard gas in 1926 .

But why are these two activists so devoted to this cause? “It’s because we have first-hand knowledge of what they are going through,” Amina Khalid revealed. During the “years of lead,” her husband was jailed in Casablanca on account of his political opinions. As was Amina Boukhalkhal’s husband, who was general secretary of the Marxist party Annahj Addimocrati (Democratic Way). “He was arrested in 1985 and spent ten years in prison before he was pardoned. I was teaching math at the time, those were hard years,” the activist remembered. Her daughter, 26 year-old Tahani Brahma, a member of Annahj and of the Moroccan Association for Human Rights (AMDH in its French abbreviation) was born during that period. “We couldn’t let the Makhzen [Power structure] win and deprive us of a family, so we took advantage of his stay in hospital, when they left us alone for a little while. She’s a child of prison,” she said, not without a touch of pride. Already in the seventies and eighties, women played a major role in the struggle for human rights. Just as they do today, they relayed the prisoner’s demands to the world outside. In 1979, the AMDH was founded by prisoners’ families. By a cruel twist of fate, the two radical activists of yesteryear and today’s Hirak prisoners came up before the same judge; Lahcen Tolfi, dreaded for his inflexibility.

Al-Hoceima, an empty city

While awaiting the notorious magistrate’s final verdict the foreign press is not allowed into Al Hoceima where life seems at a standstill. “There are no big festivities any more. Nobody’s in the mood for those, or for anything else for that matter,” says Rhimou Saidi despondently. She tells of the children who play at re-enacting the protests, Makhzen versus Nasser Zefzafi, shouting, “Long live the Rif!”. It’s not a good idea to do that any more, they could be sent to the correctional facility for minors in Nador. And then there was that time, in the middle of November, when the secondary school students tried to protest against the time shift like all the other students in the kingdom. The military threatened to send them to Casablanca if they didn’t behave. “Sometimes I have nightmares where I’m being chased by the police,” she confesses behind her veil. But how to forget the patrols, the checkpoints and the military camps in the surrounding forest with their crowd-control paraphernalia ready for use?

“Anyway, Al Hoceima is empty. When our sons aren’t locked up, they go off to drown in the Mediterranean.” Because the desperation is also financial. The husband or the brother in jail was often the household’s only wage earner in a region where 40% of young people are out of work and where the economy is partly based on the illegal cultivation of cannabis. Prisoners’ families have to handle a double burden: feed their families on a shoestring and make sure, every fortnight, that the prison conditions of their loved ones haven’t grown worse.

Conditions which have in fact greatly improved since they were first incarcerated, thanks to a tireless struggle and media pressure. During their first visits and in spite of the distance they had come, the families only had the right to be with their loved ones for five short minutes. The prisoners, who all knew each other, were divided into four groups which were not allowed to communicate. They had no hot water and, except for exercise time, the cell doors remained locked. Now, the prisoners are all together, the doors are unlocked and the meetings with their families last two hours in a common room, with chairs. “But there are still arbitrary decisions,” Amina Boukhakhal points out. “For example, since Hirak — and this applies to all prisoners in the country—visitors are not allowed to bring in food they have cooked at home. This means prisoners have to shop at the prison grocery where everything is very expensive and of poor quality.” This is a further drain on the family budget since they have to send money to their prisoners. “And these gains can suddenly disappear, just like that, with no justification.” Which often triggers a hunger strike, the only way the accused still have to protest. “But every time one of our sons goes on strike, we’re worried to death,” Rhimou Saidi says in a frightened voice; her son once refused to eat for 47 days.

While conditions in Casablanca have improved, they have not done so for prisoners in other facilities such as the one in Al Hoceima or for protestors from other movements, in Jerada, for example, which do not receive the same attention from the associations and international media.

Back in the Oukacha café, after nibbling on a few chips, it was already time to get back in the bus. The women from the Rif departed with one certainty in their hearts: they won’t give up. But they have little hope. “At the first trial, I expected a sentence of a few weeks, six months at the most, and when they said ten years, I was really shocked,” says Souaf. In a press release on 19 December dealing with the appeal trial, Amnesty International denounced “another travesty of justice”and “confessions extracted under torture.” On 18 January, Nasser Zefzafi, leader of the movement, kept in confinement in Oukacha, and other detainees decided to boycott the fourth hearing, considering that the conditions for a fair trial were not met. “I keep praying God, but I don’t expect anything from the Makhzen,” Jelloul’s mother decreed as she said goodbye. Standing beside her, Oulaya added, making the sign of V for victory “Long live the women of the Rif!”