RABAT - Morocco is one of the most open countries in North Africa but its human rights record deteriorated last year, a leading rights watchdog said Wednesday as it presented its annual report on Morocco.
"It has been one of the pioneers in human rights" in the region, said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch (HRW), but the situation had "globally deteriorated" in 2009.
Whitson praised Morocco's "free press and dynamic civil society" and welcomed the announcement of legal reform from King Mohammed IV.
She asked that "all elements of Moroccan society contribute to the success of this process".
HRW, a US-based non-governmental organisation that released its World Report 2010 in Beirut on Tuesday, strongly criticised Morocco's legal system.
"Morocco cracked down hard on those who broke the taboos against critical discussion of the monarchy, Islam, and Western Sahara," said Whitson.
The government, helped by compliant tribunals, has used a repressive legislation to punish and imprison non-violent opponents, she added.
Morocco's Minister of Communication and government spokesman, Khalid Naciri immediately criticised the report, asking international rights groups to have "more distance and objectivity".
Naciri slammed their "superficial discourse" and "selective approach" when talking about "Morocco's faults".
HRW also judged "very serious" the human rights situation in neighbouring Algeria, pointing out in particular the restrictions imposed on civil society and the press, as well as the silence around human rights violations.
"Generalised violations of human rights" have continued in Algeria, under a state of emergency since 1992, the co-director of MENA Eric Goldstein said.
"NGOs can not even hold meetings or workshops in public places" and "all discussion on the past has been banned", he said.