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Friday, June 25, 1999 Published at 18:37 GMT 19:37 UK

World: Africa

Morocco human rights fears

The human rights organisation has been rebuffed

By Nick Pelham in Rabat

Amnesty International says the Moroccan authorities have withdrawn permission for the human rights group to hold its annual conference in the Moroccan capital, Rabat.

Amnesty says no reason has been given, but the decision comes amid growing unease over the human rights situation in the country.

Since his appointment last year, the Moroccan Prime Minister, Abderrahmane Youssoufi, himself a former human rights lawyer, had made civil liberties a key plank of his reform programme.

Power struggle underway

He had stressed that Morocco would be the first Arab state to host an Amnesty conference, and he said the kingdom aimed to become the most liberal and democratic state in the Arab world.

[ image: The government in Rabat is divided]
The government in Rabat is divided
But last Sunday, the 75 year-old prime minister was rushed to hospital for emergency brain surgery and he is likely to remain out of action for weeks.

Already, Mr Youssoufi's long-term rival, Interior Minister Driss Basri, appears to be filling much of the vacuum, and it is from his ministry that the order to cancel the Amnesty conference appears to have come.

Amnesty has repeatedly criticised Mr Basri's security services for allegedly torturing dozens of political detainees.

Western Sahara in the spotlight

Reports in the Moroccan press said the interior ministry is also concerned that the presence of 400 Amnesty delegates in Rabat might attract unwelcome coverage of alleged malpractices in Morocco and the Moroccan-administered Western Sahara.

The authorities declared all human rights abuses to have been resolved, but the kingdom's leading Islamist opponent remains under house arrest, its communist leader is in exile and scores of political activists are unaccounted for.

The Moroccan authorities also appear anxious to prevent the Amnesty meeting from becoming a focus for popular discontent as they have struggled to deal with a severe drought and spiralling unemployment.

Week after week, protestors demonstrating for jobs confront the security forces and observers are now asking whether Rabat's decision to bar the Amnesty conference signals that repression, rather than reform, might shape Moroccan policy over the months to come.

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