RABAT, Morocco – Dozens of Moroccan and foreign activists demonstrated Friday in front of a Rabat courthouse where a Guinean advocate for sub-Saharan migrants in Morocco is being tried in what the demonstrators called part of a wider crackdown.
Laye Camara, the founder of the Council of Sub-Saharan Migrants in Morocco, was arrested by police on Oct. 20 and charged with selling alcohol without a license and smuggling cigarettes after police found three bottles of wine and two cartons of cigarettes in his apartment.
"For months the situation has been very tense and the Moroccan authorities have become very violent, while the press has stigmatized us and is encouraging racism," said Sadio Balde, a colleague of Camara's at the council and also from Guinea. "The situation has become intolerable."
Last week, the pro-regime weekly magazine Maroc Hebdo had a cover story entitled "the Black Peril," accusing sub-Saharan Africans of living off begging, drug trafficking and prostitution. The cover featured a close up shot of a black man's face.
The story provoked outrage among many Moroccans, especially activists, with one person tweeting that "the racist front page of Maroc Hebdo is perhaps a taste of next year's debates: poverty, unemployment all the fault of the blacks."
Thousands of Africans attempt to use Morocco every year as a road to Europe, crossing the narrow Straits of Gibraltar, often in leaky boats, with many dying. The Moroccan press has reported that dozens drowned just in the last few weeks.
Others gather in the forest outside the Spanish enclave of Melilla and attempt to burst through the high walls in concerted rushes staved off by Moroccan and Spanish border guards.
Following the signing of association accords with the European Union, Morocco has the responsibility to stop illegal immigration and every year thousands are expelled across the closed border into Algeria — from where most sneak across.
Morocco expels 14,000 immigrants every year, according to the Anti-Racist Group to Defend Foreigners and Migrants, known by its French initials GADEM.
Many end up stuck in Morocco and can be seen begging on the streets or selling contraband in back alleys — a charge defense lawyers say police tried to lay on Camara because of his activist work.
Camara was preparing a report accusing security forces of violence against migrants, including murder, when he was arrested, said Abdessalam Belafhel, president of the Rabat chapter of the Moroccan Association for Human Rights.
His attorney, Lekbir Lmssegeum, said Camara signed a police report written in Arabic that inflated the number of cigarettes and alcohol police said to have found.
"Camara signed a statement he couldn't read because he does not read Arabic. He admits to having 20 packs of cigarettes and in the report, the police wrote 240 packs," he said. During Friday's court session, a charge of forgery was added by authorities claiming the defendant had falsified the papers he used to gain residency.
Estimates in the press for the number of black Africans living illegally in Morocco range from 10,000 to 25,000, though Camille Denis, a coordinator with the GADEM anti-racism group, noted that little fuss is made about the thousands of Europeans, especially French and Spanish who fled the economic crisis in Europe to work in Morocco.
"Many thousands of Europeans travel to Morocco (to work) illegally but oddly enough this does not seem to pose any problem to Moroccan authorities," she said.
Associated Press reporter Paul Schemm contributed to this story.