On Thursday, 16th of June 2016, according to what was reported by the Moroccan newspaper TelQuel, two men have been sentenced for publicly breaking the religious fast during the holy month of Ramadan. The two men were convicted under Article 222 of the Moroccan Criminal Code for having drunk water in public. This happened in the hot city of Zagora, at the door of the desert, in the south of Morocco. The Article provides: “whoever, while clearly known for their membership in the Muslim religion, ostensibly breaks the fast in a public place during the time of Ramadan, without grounds permitted by this religion, is punishable by imprisonment of one to six months and a fine of MAD 200 to 500”. This prohibition gives rise to serious concerns from a human rights standpoint.
In Moroccan Constitution: “Islam is the religion of the State, which guarantees to all the free exercise of beliefs”. Religions other than Islam – Christianity and Judaism, whose followers make up a bit more than 1% of the Moroccan population – do not receive the same protection as the official religion. Morocco is also a party to the main international instruments for the protection of the freedom of, and freedom from, religion: the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). Article 18 of both instruments provides that: “Everyone shall have the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion.” This includes freedom not to believe in any religion or to adopt atheistic views.
Art 222 of the Moroccan Criminal code presents at least two aspects of friction with Morocco’s human rights obligations. First, a person has the right of changing its beliefs and cults. Article 18 ICCPR has been interpreted by the Human Rights Committee (HRC), as, ‘including the right to replace one’s current religion or belief with another or to adopt atheistic views, as well as the right to retain one’s religion or belief”. Moreover, in accordance with articles 17 and 18(2) ICCPR, no one can be compelled to reveal his thoughts or adherence to a religion or belief. Therefore, the reference in Art 222 to being “clearly known for their membership in the Muslim religion” cannot by any means impose religious obligations on individuals. Thus, an inquiry into the religious affiliation of the men who publicly broke the fast cannot be carried out. It is against human rights to declare that some people are “clearly known for their membership in the Muslim religion”, as they are free not only to change this belief at any time, but also free not to reveal their faith.
Second, Article 18(2) ICCPR provides that “No one shall be subject to coercion which would impair his freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice”. Even though Islam is the state religion, the imposition of religious practices, such as the abstention from drinking during daytime in Ramadan is against the wording of the ICCPR. A right to freedom of religion means that it is possible to not believe. This also means an individual has the right to abstain from religious practices. The HRC notes that Article 18(2) prohibits the use of “penal sanctions to compel believers or non-believers to adhere to a cult, to recant their religion, or to convert”. Forcing fast, therefore, is a curtailment of the freedom not to manifest religion – just like its opposite, forcing not to fast, would restrict the freedom to manifest belief. While there are instances in which freedom to manifest belief can be restricted (if it amounts to propaganda for war, racial or religious hatred – see Article 20 ICCPR), freedom from coercion can never be curtailed.
Morocco has embarked, under the leadership of the current King Mohammed VI, on a project of liberalisation and human development, which includes, most notably, emphasis on the respect for human rights “as constant behaviour at all levels, […and] a shared culture” (Royal Address, 10th December 1999). Therefore, the Moroccan authorities should hear the voices of those who, within the territory of the kingdom such as the Moroccan Association for Human Rights, the Moroccan League for Human Rights, support the abolition of Article 222 of the Criminal Code. Worryingly, Human Rights Watch has warned sometimes these organisations are constrained by Moroccan officials. Former King Hassan II is credited with the sentence “Morocco is like a tree nourished by roots deep in the soils of Africa which breathes through foliage rustling to the winds of Europe”. Much remains to be done for the sap of human rights to circulate and soak the tree.