The North African country has locked up musicians deemed to be critical of the state. Now one jailed rapper’s entourage is fighting against time to get his message out and rally the country’s floundering democracy movement

Originally published on Daily Beast/ Newsweek – Oct. 4, 2012

On Give Me Liberty Or Give Me Death, the forthcoming album from dissident Moroccan rapper El Haqed—whose name means “the Enraged”—one track stands out amongst the ambient tones and deceptively lighthearted chimes. Called “El Habs,” or “Prison,” the song features lyrics that are particularly poignant now that El Haqed—otherwise known as Mouad Belghouat, a 25-year-old Casablanca kid—is serving a one-year jail sentence for a music video and song, “Dogs of the State,” that allegedly insulted Morocco’s infamously corrupt police.

The refrain is—like most of El Haqed’s lyrics—a challenge to the authorities.

You call this a prison?/I’ve been living in an outdoor prison my whole life!

El Haqed hails from a neighborhood referred to by its inhabitants as Oukacha—the name of a prison on the other side of town—a deeply religious district plagued by drugs and poverty, where few are able to obtain the money to escape apartments often crowded with entire families sharing a single room. “Many of the people there are in constant rotation between Oukacha the neighborhood and Oukacha the prison,” says Maria Karim, a 32-year-old Moroccan documentarian and democracy activist who helped El Haqed produce his album. Karim, who is facing her own legal battle for having allegedly insulted the authorities, is working on borrowed time to get El Haqed’s message out to Moroccans and, she hopes, to the wider world. “People ask El Haqed what his school of rap his is. He says it’s m’habsse (prisoner) rap, which I take to mean the rap of a people who are prisoners outdoors,” Karim says.

A few months after American superstars Lenny Kravitz and Mariah Carey traveled to Marrakech to perform at a high-profile music festival (where they thanked King Mohammed VI for inviting them) Morocco still has some of its own musical talent locked up for producing songs deemed injurious to the state. Today many Moroccan activists say the U.S. singers’ visit ended up tacitly supporting a repressive regime. (Carey’s booking agency declined to comment on the singer’s trip to Morocco, and Kravitz’s record label had not responded to request for comment at the time of publication.)

“We encourage performing artists to speak out about repression of freedom of expression when they visit Morocco, especially on behalf of imprisoned fellow artists like El Haqed,” said Eric Goldstein, deputy director of Human Rights Watch for the Middle East North Africa region.

“By hosting international music festivals, Morocco is able to embellish its image as a cosmopolitan, tolerant haven of international culture. The presence of prestigious artists contributes to that image. We encourage them to urge Morocco to release artists like El Haqed, whose imprisonment tarnishes the image they wish to cultivate,” Goldstein said.

Shortly after the pop stars’ departure, El Haqed reportedly embarked on a 48-hour hunger strike in prison, after he was allegedly confined to a dark room and exposed to other forms of what his supporters characterize as “mental torture.”

The glitzy Mawazine Festival that Kravitz and Carey attended, which netted $7 million in revenues, presents a rosy image of a tolerant, open Morocco decidedly at odds with the state that locked up El Haqed. Meanwhile, the U.S. government remains supportive of Morocco’s royal leadership, thanks to the latter’s perennial compliance with counterterrorist measures in the region—no matter that the regime, like many others in the African and Arab World, does not grant its citizens the human rights that the U.S. has said should apply internationally. Earlier this week, the United Nations issued a scathing report on human-rights abuses against dissidents in Morocco. It included accounts of sexual assault perpetrated on men involved in the democracy movement, and other horrific tortures. In one case, a dissident reported that his torturers plucked his eyelashes out, in retribution for his having attended a protest.

“For me, U.S. politics is about protecting [America’s] own interests, like any other country in the world,” says Karim, the documentarian. Still, she noted that El Haqed and his entourage deeply respect the First Amendment rights that the U.S. grants its citizens. Indeed, those rights inspired the title of El Haqed’s latest album.

“I want El Haqed’s voice to transcend prison bars,” says Karim. She may not have much time to get the job done. At El Haqed’s May 7 trial, which resulted in his second jail sentence since 2011, Karim reproached a civil prosecutor for interrupting her exchange with the judge. The crown’s prosecution accused Karim of insulting the lawyer. She apologized in a closed audience with the judge and lawyer, she says, and the judge announced to the courthouse that the lawyer had accepted her apology. But moments later, Karim was carted off to prison for 48 hours.

The lawyer who originally accused Karim has refused to press charges, and another prosecutor on his team is acting as the plaintiff in a trail against Karim, which has been postponed six times now, in what Karim and other activists say is a typical attempt to use Morocco’s judiciary to silence dissidents.

“This is a political trial—nothing judicial about it,” says Abdullah Abaakil, a participant in Morocco’s democracy movement who studied international law at the renowned Institut d’Etudes Politiques in Paris. The judgment, he says, will likely be “unpredictable, because the verdict will all depend on what instructions are given to the judge from on high the day of the trial.”

Karim’s next court appearance is on Oct. 4. Talking about her trial, she says “there is no logic here … all the tools I learned in my life, in my education at home and abroad in France, don’t apply in a system where rule of law is tampered with.”

Morocco’s Twitter community—still faithful to a democracy movement that has fizzled to occasional Sunday rallies—has started to Tweet the hashtags #ShoutMaria and #FreeL7a9ed (the alphanumeric spelling of El Haqed) in support of the dissidents.

Karim says that even if she cannot produce El Haqed’s songs before her next court date, supporters in El Haqed’s entourage and fan base will inherit the task of putting out the raps that have become a battle cry for the democracy movement.