Last month, in the small city of Beni-Mellal in central Morocco, two men were dragged from a private home, beaten by a mob (on camera), and then arrested by the authorities for “homosexual acts.”
“It's a case of punishing the victims,” said Graeme Reid, the director of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Program at Human Rights Watch. And indeed, one of the men was convicted almost immediately for “sexual deviancy” and “public drunkenness” and sentenced to four months in prison and a fine of 500 dirham (US $52).
Two of their attackers were convicted of assault, but received only two-month suspended sentences, according to a press release issues by HRW.
But then came the outcry.
The video of the attack, showing the men bloody, naked, and crying, was shared widely on social media, both in Morocco and internationally. And in a surprise move last week, April 12, a Moroccan judge released the two men who had been attacked, while jailing four of the men involved in the assault.
The case shows the power of social media to expose what had previously been kept secret. A co-founder of Aswat Collective Against Discrimination Based on Gender & Sexuality, an LGBT rights group in Morocco, who requested anonymity for security reasons, told The Daily Beast that while the overall situation in regards to LGBT rights “is getting worse,” it has “started getting national and international attention, which is a good thing.”
Yet the attack and the arrest also illustrate the wider impact of anti-gay laws such as Morocco’s Article 489, which outlaws “lewd or unnatural acts with an individual of the same sex.” Far greater than the law’s actual reach, in terms of people arrested, is its role in inciting violence against LGBT people.
“The Moroccan government incites violence by maintaining Article 489, which does not allow gays, lesbians, bisexuals, transsexuals, transgender persons and queers to access justice,” said the Aswat spokesperson. “Hence the impunity of the aggressors,”
For example, in discussing a similar anti-gay attack in the Moroccan city of Fez last year, Justice Minister Mustafa Ramid said that “we should not let people enforce the law themselves ... but the persons involved should not provoke society, because society is like this.”
This kind of victim-blaming is common in these cases, but Aswat firmly rejected Ramid’s characterization of Moroccan society. “There is no one standard LGBTIQ life for the whole community,” the spokesperson said, and the degree to which someone experiences discrimination depends heavily on social class and geographical location.
Not all the international attention to the Beni-Mellal attacks has been helpful.
On April 11, as the second of the two men attacked in Beni-Mellal went on trial, approximately 100 people showed up to demonstrate in support of the attackers, according to Morocco World News. Two activists from France, part of the European feminist activist collective FEMEN, were arrested for attempting to stage a topless counter protest. They were subsequently deported from the country for trying to “damage public morals.”
Last year, when two other FEMEN activists initiated a similar protest in Rabat, Aswat issued a statement saying“Aswat Collective would never participate in activities such as that of FEMEN’s in Morocco simply because such actions are a contradiction to our vision and approach. We believe in different, more peaceful and productive forms of activism, which do not depend on gaining attention through provocation and shock.”
It remains to be seen whether the reversal of fortune in the Beni-Mellal case represents a one-off incident, or a potential turning point.
Aswat’s first priority is to “document and follow the cases of arrests and violations” resulting from Article 489 in hopes of getting it overturned. Hard data about any kind of homophobic incidents, whether or not they are reported to the police, is almost impossible to come by.
“I've seen [official] numbers,” said Eric Goldstein, the deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Middle East and North Africa Division. “I think they’re garbage.” As a result, it’s impossible to know the extent of the law’s effects.
It’s also impossible to know how many other Beni-Mellal-style attacks are taking place away from the glare of social media. Were it not for that video, it’s quite possible that the victims would still be in jail, and the perpetrators of the attack would still be free.
But abolishing Article 489 is only the first step. Eventually, Aswat told The Daily Beast, it hopes to pursue non-discrimination laws that would protect LGBT people and other marginalized populations from this kind of government-sanctioned abuse.
In the meantime, at least two victims of that abuse appear to have been rescued by the power of the camera.