RABAT (Reuters) - Human Rights Watch said years of progress on human rights in Morocco halted in 2009 and it criticised trials in which reporters and terrorism suspects were jailed.
The group said authorities also hindered travel for Western Sahara activists.
Morocco has built a reputation as a leading Arab world reformer and receives more European Union aid than most of its neighbours, as well as attracting millions of tourists each year from Europe and the United States.
Since ascending the throne in 1999, Morocco’s King Mohammed has shown a desire to break with repression and set up the Arab world’s first truth commission to shed light on disappearances and arbitrary imprisonments during his father’s iron rule.
But Human Rights Watch said there was a “disturbing deterioration” last year.
“After the progress seen in the 1990s and the start of the following decade ... there is now a stagnation, even a regression in human rights,” said Eric Goldstein, Human Rights Watch deputy director for the Middle East and North Africa.
He cited the jailing of a leading critic of government anti-drugs policy and a spate of trials against journalists including one imprisoned for a report on the king’s health.
He said the government had revived an effective travel ban for some Western Sahara independence activists and was still silencing people who tackle corruption.
Government spokesman Khalid Naciri said some non-governmental organisations “systematically put Morocco in the dock” and were being selective on its human rights record.
“We expect big international NGOs to have the courage to state the reality, which is a lot more complex in Morocco,” official news agency MAP cited Naciri as saying.
More than 30 suspected Islamic radicals were given prison terms last July for crimes including murder and stockpiling explosives. Among them were several politicians, a number of teachers and a television reporter.
Goldstein said many in the group, named after their alleged leader Abdelkader Belliraj, were forced to confess by police.
“Their complaints of torture were not taken into account by the judge,” Goldstein said at a news conference in Rabat. “It’s just one case among others where the judiciary was not free and the accused had no right to defend themselves.”
He called on the government to revise laws that punish people for expressing opinions peacefully and press ahead with reforms to make the judiciary independent.
Morocco’s improving rights record in the past few years has been linked to its economic prospects.
Citing progress on political reforms and human rights, the EU has given Morocco “advanced status”, boosting its chances of winning more access to European markets and funding.
A new law has given Moroccan women more rights in marriage and the independent press has flourished.