Outspoken Morocco rapper charged over "insulting" song

RABAT (Reuters) - A Moroccan rapper was charged on Friday with insulting public authorities in a song that was posted on YouTube, at the start of a trial criticised by his supporters as a new attempt to muzzle an outspoken critic of the monarchy.

The court, in Casablanca, adjourned the trial of Mouad Belrhouat, known as El-Haqed or “The Sullen One”, to April 4 and refused him bail, his lawyer Hatim Bekkar said.

It is less than three months since El-Haqed was sentenced to four months in prison for assault after a brawl with a monarchist, but released at once because he had spent that long in detention awaiting trial.

Bekkar said his client had been arrested by plainclothes police officers on Thursday without a warrant.

The state-run MAP news agency said he was arrested for “singing a song defamatory to a public authority” - which it did not name - and for posting images “detrimental to public servants”.

El-Haqed was the voice of a movement that organised mass protests last year to push for a constitutional monarchy, an independent judiciary and less corruption. His lyrics have angered many monarchists but struck a chord with Moroccans disenchanted with the lack of jobs and widespread corruption.

The authorities, trying to prevent popular revolts like those in Egypt and Tunisia, introduced reforms in July which were meant to make the judiciary constitutionally independent and to guarantee greater respect for public freedoms.

But the courts still have a reputation for taking their cue from the authorities. El-Haqed’s brother, Abderrahim Belrhouat, said Friday’s trial “shows how nothing has changed in Morocco”.

Bekkar said the trial was political and that El-Haqed faced up to three years’ jail if found guilty. “It seems the police are now the plaintiff ... The prosecution has ordered his detention as if he represented a danger to the community”.

The court questioned El-Haqed about a video of his song “Kilab Addawla” - “Dogs of the State” in English - which was posted on Youtube in January with a photo montage critical of the police, the government and the monarchy.

“It was El-Haqed’s song, yes, but he had nothing to do with the video or the photo montage on it,” activist Maria Karim said. The video has had some 126,000 hits since it was posted.

It showed a member of the riot police with a donkey’s head tugging at a protester’s clothes, and a picture of servants bowing before the king in one of his palaces with a caption reading “Collective bowing, but not before God”.

Abbdelilah Benabdeslam, from Morocco’s main human rights group AMDH, said El-Haqed’s arrest comes at a time of “growing constraints on freedom of speech and opinion in Morocco”.

“El-Haqed uses songs to express his views about ... Morocco. Democracies allow their citizens to express their views without risking arrest,” he said.

On Tuesday, an appeal court near Rabat sentenced 18-year-old Walid Bahomane to 18 months in prison after a cartoon of the king - originally published by a French newspaper - was posted on his Facebook page.

A 24-year-old activist was jailed for three years in February for slandering the king in a video on Youtube.

Many people have been jailed this year for taking part in protests over unemployment, corruption and poverty, and many Moroccans are growing impatient as they wait for action to put the proposed reforms into effect.

“One does not have to go far back to discover how the police force often commits violations in handling peaceful protests,” said Benabdeslam, who cited a recent report by 18 local rights groups that slammed the police for excessive use of violence in handling protests in northern Morocco.

Communications Minister Mustafa el-Khalfi, who is also the government spokesman, could not be reached for comment. The government says it is fully committed to respect for human rights.

Reporting By Souhail Karam; Editing by Tim Pearce