A group of women protesters in Rabat on Wednesday denounced a verdict that was deemed lax against three men accused of repeatedly raping an 11-year-old girl, a case that is stirring emotion and anger in Morocco.
"This verdict is incomprehensible, unfair and shocking. We are here to carry the voice of this child. It must stop!", Maria Tahir said, who came to protest at the call of the "Spring of Dignity", a collective of feminist associations, outside a court in Rabat.
The appeal trial of this high-profile case is due to open on Thursday in the Moroccan capital, but it will most likely be postponed at the request of the civil party's lawyer.
The criminal chamber of the Rabat Court of Appeal convicted three defendants on March 20 in first instance for "abduction of a minor" and "indecent assault on a minor with violence". One of the defendants was sentenced to two years in prison, the other two to 18 months.
"No to the rape of young girls", chanted about sixty protesters, mostly women, who denounced "the shame of raped children".
According to Moroccan women's rights NGOs, the minor, who was 11 years old at the time of the events and is now 12 years old, "suffered repeated rapes under threat", which resulted in pregnancy.
"It is time to bring justice to this girl and her child. This type of case should not be judged with laxity," said Amina Khalid, secretary general of the association Insaf (National Institution of Solidarity with Women in Distress).
- The Minister of Justice "shocked" -
The case has deeply scandalized the Moroccan public opinion and a petition condemning the sentence had collected Wednesday more than 31,000 signatures.
The commotion grew with the publication of the judgment in which it appears that the defendants have benefited from mitigating circumstances because in principle "the penalty provided by law is harsh in relation to the facts incriminated", according to the news website Medias24.
The three men, aged 25, 32 and 37, who were also ordered to pay damages totalling 50,000 dirhams (4,500 euros), faced between 10 and 20 years in prison, according to the Moroccan penal code.
The case led to a showdown between Justice Minister Abdellatif Ouahbi and the Moroccan Magistrates Club.
Mr. Ouahbi said he was "shocked" by the ruling, saying it "questions all of us, as leaders and actors in civil society, on the necessary efforts that must be strengthened on the legislative, intellectual, educational, to protect our childhood from rape," according to comments quoted by the media.
For its part, the professional association of Moroccan magistrates considered that the minister's comments, "evaluating a judicial decision rendered in first instance in a case still pending before the appeal court, constitutes a serious attack on the independence of the judiciary.
In Morocco, NGOs and the media frequently sound the alarm about cases of sexual violence against minors and call for harsher sanctions.