Rabat - Human Rights Watch urged Morocco on Monday to stop prosecuting and jailing people for their sexual orientation, after an appeals court upheld the convictions of six men accused of homosexual acts.
"Moroccan authorities should stop prosecuting and jailing people for their intimate behaviour with other consenting adults," said HRW's regional director, Sarah Lea Whitson.
"Whatever the sexual orientation of these six defendants, they shouldn't face criminal penalties because of it."
Despite its liberal reputation compared with other parts of the Arab world, Morocco remains a conservative Muslim country whose government is led by a moderate Islamist party and where gay sex is illegal, punishable by a maximum three years in prison.
In May, the court in Faqih Bensalah, south of Rabat, handed prison sentences ranging from one to three years to six defendants accused among other things of homosexual acts, and ordered their expulsion from the town once after their jail terms.
In its 2 July ruling, the appeals court in Beni Mellal shortened the prison terms of two defendants, converted the others to suspended sentences and scrapped the banishment orders, HRW said.
But the New York-based group said the charges on which they were convicted, which included "lewd or unnatural acts with an individual of the same sex," amounted to a form of discrimination that contradicted the preamble of Morocco's new constitution, introduced by the king in 2011.
It also raised doubts about the fairness of the trial, saying the appeals court upheld the convictions solely on the basis of statements the defendants made while in police custody.
All six repudiated those statements at the trial, asserting that they had signed them only because of police threats, according to Hadda Maidar, one of the defence lawyers cited by HRW.
After the original trial, Moroccan civil society activists appealed against homophobia and called for homosexuality to be decriminalised in a video posted on the internet.
But members of the Party of Justice and Development, the Islamist party that heads the coalition government, strongly criticised the campaign.