Morocco: Stop Persecuting Individuals based on Claims of Homosexuality

06/22/2015 04:39 pm ET | Updated Jun 20, 2016

While in the West we celebrate Pride this month, not so throughout the globe. Case in point is Morocco, a North African country where a series of events over the past few weeks has sent shockwaves through the Moroccan LGBT community and stirred a highly sensationalist national debate over homosexuality, religious and cultural values, ... and alleged Western cultural imperialism.

The public tension over homosexuality in Morocco started building on June 2, when media reported two female French activists from the feminist group Femen had been deported to France, after they posed topless in front of the historic Hassan Tower, a famous minaret in Rabat, the Moroccan capital. One of the women had written "In gay we trust" on her torso as a protest against Article 489 of the Moroccan Penal Code, which criminalizes "abnormal sexual acts with a person of the same sex." Their topless images quickly went viral on the Internet, The two women were arrested at the airport, as they were on their way to leave the country. Both women were subsequently charged with committing obscene acts and were immediately expelled from the country and banned from coming back.

On the same day, during a live concert in the Moroccan capital, Rabat, the British music band Placebo protested against Morocco's sodomy law with one of their guitarists going to the stage topless with the number 489 visibly written on his chest and crossed out. and He was playing a guitar with the colors of rainbow flag.

Article 489 of the Moroccan 1963 Penal Code states, "Whoever commits abnormal sexual acts with a person of the same sex shall be punished with imprisonment for a period of 6 months to 3 years and a fine from 120 to 1000 Dirhams [US$12-100], unless the act is a more serious offense. "

The next day, on June 3, two Moroccan men, one from Rabat and the other from the western city of Marrakesh, were arrested on the same spot where the two Femen members went topless the day before. The two men, Mohsen, 25, and Lahcen, 38, identified by their first names, were taking pictures of themselves as they were visiting the tourist site. Media reports indicated the police initially arrested the two men for supposedly "standing too close to each other," a charge that was later officially elevated to "two sexual perverts kissing publically."

The Interior Ministry's statement, published by the media, openly linked the arrest of the two men to the activities of foreign organizations (i.e. the French women who were deported a day earlier), which "deliberately violate Moroccan law, target social and religious foundations of Moroccan society and try to infringe upon public morality." The Interior Ministry's statement also announced that ffour Spanish citizens were deported from the country in relation to the June 3 public protest by Femen, describing the group as "a foreign organization promoting moral corruption."

While the Moroccan media tried to portray this chain of events as part of a broader gay conspiracy, the Moroccan LGBT group Aswat issued a statement, in which they distanced themselves from the protest. The statement reads, "Aswat Collective has nothing to do with organizing of the actions of FEMEN in the square of the Hassan historical site or the actions of the British band Placebo in Mawazine Festival. In fact, Aswat Collective would never participate in activities such as that of FEMEN's in Morocco simply because such actions are a contradiction to our vision and approach. We believe in different, more peaceful and productive forms of activism, which do not depend on gaining attention through provocation and shock."

In the aftermath of the arrest of the two men, the anti-LGBT sentiment in Morocco exploded, with a group of demonstrators gathered outside the house of one of the two men, chanting, "This is a shame," "Islam is in danger," "Islam demands revenge" and "we reject homosexuality." Adding fuel to the fire, the Moroccan media published the full names and photos of the two men, along with their home addresses, as part of their "extensive" media coverage.

The first session of the trial was held on Friday June 12 and the second session on June 16. Before the trial, the men allegedly confessed to having engaged in consensual same-sex sexual acts, according to the police report. However, during the trial, their lawyers said the confession was obtained by police under duress and without access to legal counsel, making it inadmissible under both Moroccan and international law. Also prior to the trial, the authorities published the photo and the identity of both men, violating their rights to privacy and presumption of innocence.

Their lawyers drew attention to the fact that their images aired on national TV and both showed signs of having been beaten with bruises evident. The lawyers requested a medical examination to determine whether the men were tortured or suffered physical duress during the police investigation. After the second session of the trial, the lawyers' request for bail for the defendants was declined and the two men remained in custody.

The trial of the two men is the latest in an ongoing effort by conservative forces in Morocco to curb personal freedom for LGBT individuals and anyone else who is perceived not to conform to prevailing gender norms. In March 2015, a new draft of the Penal Code was presented to the Moroccan Parliament, which if passed, would have increased the fine for same-sex act to 2,000 to 20,000 DH (US$200-2,000) from 120 to 1,000 (US$20-100) dirhams in the current, and keeping the 6 month -3 years in jail for this "crime."

The arrest and sentencing of these two men demonstrates how Article 489 of the Moroccan Penal Code is used by the authorities to intimidate individuals based on actual or perceived sexual orientation and gender expression. The Moroccan authorities should immediately release these men and repeal all criminal law provisions, such as Article 489 that go against Morocco's international human rights obligations.

The draft of the new Penal Code is also available on the website of the Moroccan Ministry of Justice in Arabic.