On the morning of February 5, plainclothes officers in Morocco picked up Fouad Mourtada in Casablanca, blindfolded him, and took him to the police station, where they reportedly tortured him until he lost consciousness. His crime: He had created a Facebook profile of Crown Prince Moulay Rachid, the King’s brother.
Mourtada is 26. He did what millions of other people his age do every day–create profiles, real or fake, on social networking websites. There are fake profiles on Facebook for everyone from Brad Pitt to Mother Teresa, from King Abdullah to Osama bin Laden. There are 500 profiles for George W. Bush. Mourtada did not appear to think he was committing any crime. Indeed, despite being a computer engineer, with a degree from the prestigious École Mohammedia des Ingénieurs, he did not use a proxy server to protect his identity. Nor did he derive any profit, monetary or otherwise, from the Facebook profile. It may have been a youthful prank or a twenty-first-century homage, but either way it landed him in jail.
How the Moroccan police found out Mourtada’s identity remains a bit of a mystery. They could have obtained his IP address from Facebook, or from his service provider, Maroc Telecom, or from an old-fashioned snitch. But the preliminary court hearing did not include details of the police investigation, so the possibility of corporate cooperation cannot be ruled out. After all, China cracked down on dissidents last year with the help of Yahoo.
Fouad Mourtada’s family found out about his arrest through a statement by the official news agency, Maghreb Arabe Presse (MAP), which, setting aside presumptions of innocence, wrote that the young engineer was being held for “villainous practices.” Apparently unable to resist plugging its service, MAP noted that Morocco’s royals maintain no blogs or websites, and that the only source of online information about them is through the news agency.
Moroccan TV channels ignored the case. Many newspapers and magazines reported on it carefully and factually, but a few engaged in speculation. They charged that Mourtada had created the Facebook profile in order to pick up girls and that he had created a fake e-mail address for the Prince, neither of which assertions turned out to be true.
Among the first to champion Mourtada were Moroccan bloggers, who posted regular updates, created petitions and directed readers to the website set up by his family. Their efforts helped to attract the attention of foreign media, including Le Monde and CNN.
Although Mourtada’s case may seem to belong in an “Oddly Enough” column, it is quite representative of the state of human rights in Morocco today. In January 2007, the magazine Nichane was seized and its editor given a suspended sentence because he published jokes deemed offensive to Islam. In February, the editor of Le Journal, Aboubakr Jamai, was forced to resign from his magazine in order to protect it from an outrageously large fine (more than $300,000), the largest in Morocco’s history. In a May Day protest, a group of people who were calling for constitutional reforms were arrested, charged with the extremely serious offense of “undermining the sacred values of the state” and given two- to four-year prison sentences. One of them, Mohamed Boukrine, is 72 years old and holds the sad distinction of having been jailed by every Moroccan regime since colonization. In June, protesters who were demanding the release of the May Day prisoners were also arrested and imprisoned. The months come and go, but the pattern stays the same.
In 2004, when King Mohammed set up the Equity and Reconciliation Commission to document the horrendous abuses committed by his father during the 1980s (the infamous “Years of Lead”), many people thought that the country had finally set itself on a new course, that it would henceforth limit the powers of police and abide by legal process. Morocco is unique among countries in the region in that it has openly dealt with past cases of abuse and torture, and offered victims monetary compensation. By taking this initiative, King Mohammed came to signify change.
But now, nearly ten years after his accession to the throne, the country is sliding back down a familiar road of abuse. Journalists are given suspended sentences over the slightest infraction; protesters are arrested and thrown in jail for exercising their right to free speech; and court judges serve as rubber stamps for the police. If a young man can be tortured over a fake Facebook profile, what will happen to the dissidents who have no access to the Internet and no way of reaching out to world media?
At a court hearing in Casablanca on February 15, Mourtada was charged with identity theft, and denied bail. However odd his arrest and trial may seem, they are ultimately useless. Immediately after the case became known, two more Facebook profiles for the Prince were created–from the safety of a Western country.