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Activists: Morocco back to pre-Arab Spring abuses

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RABAT, Morocco (AP) — Ouafa Charaf was heading home from a solidarity sit-in with a group of laid off workers in the northern port city of Tangiers, she says, when a small white van pulled up and two men forced her into the back and blindfolded her.

"They started to hit me and insult me and then one of them threatened to make me disappear," the 26-year-old political activist told The Associated Press by telephone. "They ridiculed me for wanting to change the situation in my country." She was later dumped out in the country some eight miles (12 kilometers) from her home.

Charaf could not prove her claims that they were police, and authorities denied their involvement. But Morocco's main human rights group says young activists like her are increasingly under threat.

Morocco has been widely lauded for its reformist response to the 2011 pro-democracy protests that swept the country along with the rest of the Middle East during the Arab Spring. But activists say that rather than carrying out promises to grant greater freedoms, authorities have stepped up a crackdown on dissent, especially against the young. Many see a return to the oppressive human rights situation that existed before the Arab Spring.

The accusations come as the U.N. Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay completed a three-day visit to Morocco on Thursday in which she applauded the new reformist constitution and other measures to improve human rights, but noted that three years later many had not been implemented.

"Many of the promising protections under the constitution have yet to be translated into reality for the people of Morocco," she said.

Morocco's most prominent independent rights group, the Moroccan Association for Human Rights, has been sounding the alarm since March, saying that many of its young activists around the country face police intimidation.

Veteran activist Samira Kinani cited the case of Oussama Housne, a 22-year-old activist who, in a video posted online, said he was snatched by three men, beaten and tortured.

Last month, police arrested 11 young activists who had joined a large labor union demonstration and chanted anti-monarchy slogans, later sentencing them to up to a year in prison for illegally protesting and attacking police.

"It is a campaign of repression against the weakest young members of the February 20 movement," said Kinani. "Unlike us they did not live through the dark period of King Hassan II and they aren't scared to express their opinions against the king for example, so I think they are trying to scare them into quitting activist circles."

Morocco was notorious for grave human rights violations under Hassan II, the current monarch's father. His son Mohammed VI came to power in 1999 and was expected to begin a new era of openness. But by 2011 there were loud cries for greater reform in a country that has all the trappings of a democracy, but where the king is still the ultimate authority.

The king's constitutional reform and elections in 2011 satisfied people's calls for change, and the demonstrations subsided. But many of the promised reforms, in particular judicial reform, have been slow to follow.

International human rights groups single out police brutality and the use of torture as the most grievous problems.

The government has denied allegations that torture is part of the police system and vows to stamp it out wherever it can be found.

"Morocco is seriously committed to the fight against torture and all forms of maltreatment and provides guarantees during periods of detention to confront any abuses," Justice Minister Mustapha Ramid said in response to a recent Amnesty report.

Activists counter that torture is standard procedure for police — and authorities are simply going back to the bad old days before the Arab Spring.

"There was a bit of leniency during 2011," said Brahim Ansari, the Rabat-based researcher for Human Rights Watch. "But now it's just the police returning to their old methods."

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