RABAT Morocco's justice minister said he would not stop the trial of an outspoken rapper charged with insulting the authorities in one of his songs, despite an outcry from rights campaigners who say the case is an attack on freedom of expression.
Human rights activists had expected this sort of prosecution would cease after a moderate Islamist opposition party, the PJD, was elected to lead the government last year with a promise of reform. But the government's influence remains limited by the power of the monarch and his court.
Known as El-Haqed or "the Sullen One," the rapper is awaiting trial over a music video posted on YouTube which showed a mocked-up photo of a policeman with a donkey's head and a picture of servants bowing before Morocco's King Mohammed.
Asked about the rapper's case in an interview with Reuters, Justice Minister Mustafa Ramid said: "The human rights activists are doing their job in demanding what they see as appropriate, but we cannot give up on the state's prosecution.
"The courts will consider this case and decide what they deem appropriate, either a conviction or an innocent verdict, and we cannot interfere in this matter," said the minister, a PJD member who made his name as a lawyer campaigning against unfair detentions.
El-Haqed, whose real name is Mouad Belrhouat, offends some Moroccans with his provocative lyrics, especially when they touch on the king, a figure revered in the North African state.
But his songs - with titles such as "Dogs of the State" - have struck a chord with many young people disenchanted with Morocco's lack of jobs, widespread corruption, and the gulf between rich and poor.
Official media said the rapper was arrested for "singing a song defamatory to a public authority" and for posting images "detrimental to public servants".
He is in prison awaiting trial and, according to his lawyer, could receive a sentence of up to three years if found guilty. He has already served four months in jail on a separate charge of brawling with a supporter of the monarchy.
Morocco's new government is also under pressure from rights activists to free dozens of Islamists who, campaigners say, are being held on spurious charges following police crackdowns on violent militant groups.
The monarch in February granted pardons to three leading Islamists, but the justice minister said it would be difficult to win the release of their colleagues still in prison.
His comments reflected the limited room for maneuver of the government. Under Morocco's constitution, the king is head of the judiciary and has the final say on all issues of religion, national security and defense.
"I asked the king to pardon the three sheikhs, the leaders, and he accepted," said Ramid. "Concerning the other Islamist prisoners, their cases are complicated and it will be difficult for me to ask for a pardon for anyone except those three."
He said that the government planned eventually to examine the cases of other jailed Islamists. "But in the end, we do not have the final decision. It is in the hands of his Majesty the king," said Ramid. "Only he decides who deserves a pardon."
(Writing by Christian Lowe; Editing by Mark Heinrich)