Tarhjicht is a small town in southern Morocco, some 200 kilometers south of the city of Agadir. It's a picturesque village on the edge of the Sahara desert whose serenity is punctuated by five ritual daily calls to prayers. On December 2, 2009, the peace was interrupted by the clamors of local students protesting their difficult situation and lack of decent infrastructure. The peaceful march was violently confronted by the authorities who proceeded to arrest a number of students. Later that day, an ad hoc committee was created to support the arrested protesters. It issued a statement calling for the immediate release of the students and condemned what it described as “harsh and barbaric treatment” by the authorities. Bashir Hazzam, a blogger from the region published the statement [Ar] along with links to a video taken at the scene. A couple of days later, Bashir, and Abdullah Boukfou, the owner of the Internet café frequented by the blogger, were arrested and accused of “publishing false information harmful to the image of the country on human rights.” An Internet campaign of support followed, backed by calls from international human rights organizations to release Bashir and his colleagues. However, a court in the neighboring city of Guelmim sentenced the blogger to 4 months in prison while his prison mates received even harsher sentences.
Nevertheless, campaigners and supporters from all over the world mounted pressure on the Moroccan authorities. Bashir was released on February 8, 2010, two months after his arrest.
In the following interview Bashir tells his story.
Could you please introduce yourself to our readers?
First, I want to thank the people working for Global Voices for giving me this opportunity to connect with their readers, and for their support and solidarity with me and my cause. I wish them more success and progress.
My name is Bashir Hazzam. I was born in 1982 in Tarhjicht where I received primary education, then moved to Bouizakarne for secondary education. I got my baccalaureate in 2002 in Tarhjicht, then joined the Faculty of Sharia (Islamic Law) at Ait Melloul in Agadir, from which I graduated in Sharia Law in 2008. I engaged very early on in associative work within local associations and was involved in student activities with the National Union of the Students of Morocco (UNEM). I'm a member of the Justice and Charity group (a de jure banned Islamist group, also known as Al-Adl wal-Ihssan or Al-Adl), and also a blogger since 2007.
How did you discover the blogosphere and what do you write about in general?
I discovered the world of blogging when I was a student: I came across a number of blogs and realized that blogging enables people to publish their ideas easily, without control and for free. I liked the idea so much that, after a brief research, I ended up creating my own blog on the Arabic blog publishing website Maktoob. That was back in September 1th, 2007. I chose to call it Al-Bushra (The Good News). My first post was titled: “Electoral Promises: Facts or Fiction.” By the way, I was interrogated by the police about the content of this article when I was arrested last December. As for my writings, I generally blog about national, international political, intellectual and religious issues.
To what extent has blogging and the Internet in general helped you in your life and activities?
The blogosphere enabled me to exchange views and ideas and communicate with many bloggers and writers from around the world. This had a positive impact on my life. Though I'm new to this field, I believe that with the passage of time, I will be able to discover new and important things that will help me improve my blogging and everyday life skills. The Internet is growing so fast, which makes the use of it highly beneficial for those who master it.
After your arrest with Abdullah Boukfou and others, the authorities claimed they had done so because you published “false information harmful to the reputation of Morocco.” Do you agree with this version of events? How do you explain the reasons behind your detention?
I completely disagree with the official version because the statement [I published on my blog] does not include any term that could cause harm to the reputation or interests of the country. And anyone who takes a look at the content of this statement can confirm that it is perfectly harmless, and that it does not include any insult to the country's reputation. To the extent that the Court decided the statement was inoffensive and acquitted me on this specific charge, but still it prosecuted me on the charge of participating in an armed protest, even though I did not participate in the demonstration in the first place. This is something that surprised me really.
I think the reason behind my arrest was to impose a media blackout around the events that occurred in Tarhjicht, after the violent intervention of the security forces against unarmed students and the population that sided with them. They are trying to prevent the truth from filtering to the public.
In fact, the charge of insulting the country's reputation on human rights should be directed at the local authority which perpetrated violence of various kinds against protesters and detainees, who simply demanded their rights in a peaceful and civilized way. We should never have been blamed. We have published the facts that occurred on the ground only to become victims of the tyranny met upon the population at random.
How were you treated during detention? And do you think you received a fair trial?
Except for some sporadic provocations at the beginning of the investigation, officers treated me well. The trial was not fair: I was sentenced to four months in prison, Abdullah Boukfou, the owner of the internet café, to one year, while three students and blogger Boubaker Al-Yadib (who was since released) received a six-month sentence. The trial was moving towards clearing us of all charges when, against the odds, the verdict was pronounced against us. We, and our defense team, felt that the process was controlled by the authorities. So much so that the verdicts were so unequal, particularly as the charges against me were the same as those filed against Abdullah Boukfou, but he ended up receiving a harsher sentence.
There were several interpretations of your release from jail: some said it was an implicit recognition by the authorities of their “mistake,” others suggested it was a public relations exercise to save the reputation of the country abroad. What's your take on this?
All these things might be true. Those indeed might have been the motives behind the authorities’ decision to retreat from their initial stance, that has only distorted the image and reputation of the country abroad.
Has the campaign of solidarity in your opinion, influenced the course of events? Do these campaigns really matter?
Yes, campaigns of solidarity conducted by bloggers in Morocco and abroad, led by the Moroccan Association of Bloggers, and broadly supported by national and international human rights organizations, particularly Reporters Without Borders, Freedom House, as well as the media, have contributed significantly to influence and pressure the officials to release us. Thanks to the efforts of all those -and praise first be to Allah- I regained my freedom after two months spent in prison. Without their campaigning, I would have remained behind bars. Also, my affiliation to Al-Adl, has brought a significant pressure to bear, as it is the largest political force of opposition in Morocco. All those factors have eventually contributed to my release.
How would you characterize freedom of expression in Morocco, especially on the Internet?
Freedom of expression in our country is plummeting and is in constant deterioration. Figures from international organizations shore up this claim, placing Morocco among countries with the least regard for freedom of expression. Reality as well supports this perception with a succession of arrests and trials of many bloggers, journalists, human rights activists and opposition figures, harassed solely because of their views. As for freedom over the Internet, the state increasingly wants to impose its control on it. This has been made evident after the attacks suffered by bloggers and the latest arrest, a couple of weeks ago, of a web designer, Abdellatif Ouiass, creator of the website “The World's Best Head of State,” although he has since been released on bail.
This shows clearly how the hands and the eyes of the Moroccan intelligence services want now to extend to the Internet. This, however, will have no significant impact given the extent of the information revolution, which each day overpowers repressive regimes.
After all that's happened, have you changed the way you blog or write? Do you have self-censorship?
What happened will not affect me. Despite the arbitrary detention, I kept my writing style intact. It will not affect my thoughts or my views. Everyone in this world has the right to express her/his opinions without censorship as long as that does not contradict laws, that are well known in this regard.
What advice would you have for bloggers in Morocco, and in the world who fear the wrath of their governments or regimes?
I would invite people to take advantage of technologies offered by the Internet to highlight their skills and talents, and express their ambitions and aspirations through blogging, so as to break the systematic marginalization imposed by authoritarian states, especially on the youth. That's a way for those countries to reach real progress and keep pace with developed nations, provided that expression remains disciplined, responsible and respectful of the privacy and specificity of others. There shouldn't be any fear of arrest or the repression that hinders the will of the people, as long as what is published by the blogger does not violate the law.
Do you have a final word for those who stood in solidarity with you?
In the end, and through this free outlet, I wish to extend my thanks and gratitude to each one of those who supported me during this ordeal, especially the Moroccan Association of Bloggers, all bloggers and activists in and outside the country, who have shown great solidarity with me. I also thank my defense lawyers, media outlets that highlighted my case, my brothers in the Justice and charity group, and all national and international human rights organizations, especially Freedom House , Reporters Without Borders and all those throughout the world whose conscience has led them to support my case. I urge upon them to continue their solidarity until Abdullah Boukfou, Abdellatif Ouiass (who's now released on bail) and all prisoners of conscience in the prisons of the country are released.