A FIFA task force arrived in Morocco on Monday to inspect a World Cup bid that obscures one potential impediment to hosting the 2026 soccer showpiece: Homosexuality is a criminal offense in the north African country.
An Associated Press review of 483 pages of documents submitted to FIFA found Morocco failed to declare its anti-LGBT law as a risk factor and provide a remedy, appearing to flout stringent new bidding requirements.
"Morocco's human rights report presented to the FIFA is an intentional silence on an issue that Morocco knows too well is a crime on its soil," Ahmed El Haij, president of the Moroccan Association for Human Rights, told the AP.
"It is evident that if Morocco was to host the World Cup, LGBT people coming to watch the games will face a lot of discrimination. The state will not be able to protect them nor will it be able to commit in preventing measures that could be taken against them by both the state and society."
Under Article 489 of the Moroccan penal code, sexual acts between people of the same sex are punishable by six months to three years in prison.
While World Cup hosts could previously largely shake off concerns from activists, FIFA has demonstrated a growing awareness in recent years of how rights abuses can impact its events.
World Cups must be in environments free of "discrimination based on sexual orientation," FIFA Secretary General Fatma Samoura wrote to activists last year discussing the upcoming tournament in Russia. Samoura's letter reflected a policy incorporated into the world soccer statutes in 2013 as scrutiny of human rights mounted in Russia and 2022 World Cup host Qatar.
"Under the new nondiscrimination requirements under FIFA's statutes and under the Human Rights Policy, one of the red lines is anti-gay activity laws or policies," Human Rights Watch director of global initiatives Minky Worden told the AP.
"Morocco, if they're serious about winning, would need to be prepared to repeal the article of the penal code which punishes people for being gay," she added.
Unlike when Russia and Qatar emerged victorious in the 2018-2022 FIFA bidding contest eight years ago, prospective hosts for the 2026 tournament were mandated to commission independent human rights reports and provide frank risk assessments that form part of the task force's evaluation.
While the United States-Canada-Mexico bid chose to publish its human rights documents, Morocco repeatedly refused requests from the AP to match the disclosure. The Morocco bid's international communications team also declined to provide any LGBT policy or how the criminalization of same-sex relations would be addressed during a potential World Cup.
The AP was provided with the human rights annexes to Morocco's bid book by FIFA only after highlighting the north African nation's lack of transparency to the soccer world and the up to 207 member nations who will vote on the 2026 host on June 13.
There is a solitary passing reference to LGBT rights in the main 381-page bid book: A narrowly worded pledge by the Moroccan soccer federation to "work to combat all forms of discrimination" including "sexual orientation," signed by its president, Fouzi Leekjaa.
There is no mention of homosexuality being a criminal offense in the bid book, nor in the 27-page executive page executive summary.
Significantly, it is also omitted from the 33-page human rights strategy in which bids are meant to own up to shortcomings and provide a means of addressing them for World Cup visitors. The equivalent 90-page document from the rival North American bid features 20 mentions of "LGBTQI+" and eight references to "sexual orientation," pledging to use their leverage to reduce the risk of discrimination and harassment in Mexico and the U.S. in particular.
"It trips you up in a bid like this because then you are submitting documents that don't accurately reflect the human rights situation in your own country," Worden said. "And you have missed an opportunity to engage the stakeholders who will come back to criticize you if you don't uphold international human rights."
Morocco's only acknowledgement that homosexuality is outlawed comes within one sentence in a 42-page — nominally independent — "study on the human rights situation."
Even then, the reference is ambiguous and implies the law might no longer be in place.
The study cites the United Nations Human Rights Council's "Universal Periodic Review" of the country, stating "Morocco took note of forty-four recommendations," including "the decriminalization of homosexual relations."
How Morocco responded to the recommendation is not provided to FIFA. That could be because Morocco told the UN in August 2017 it "completely rejects" proposals to decriminalize same-sex relations and violence against people based on their sexual orientation.
"Article 1 of the Constitution highlights the special framework of the federative constants of the Moroccan nation, namely, the moderate Muslim religion, national unity with its multiple components, constitutional monarchy and the democratic choice," Morocco said in a response to the UN last year. "Thus, the Kingdom does not accept these recommendations since they are in contradiction with the above-mentioned federative constants."
Amnesty International said it was "regrettable" Morocco has yet to repeal the articles in the penal code prohibiting same-sex sexual relations, pointing to cases last year when at least two men were sentenced to six months imprisonment.
"This contravenes the international and regional human rights treaties which Morocco has signed and ratified, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights," Amnesty told the AP.
The independence of Morocco's independent human rights study is debatable since it was co-authored by the country's National Human Rights Council, whose president was appointed by the king and is on the bid's human rights committee. The equivalent from the North American bid was produced by London-based Ergon Associates.
"It's very clear from reading these bids against each other that the united bid of the U.S., Canada, and Mexico are taking this process quite seriously both in the scope and the scale and have admitted to human rights problems that they have that they will need to address," Worden said. "And there are very serious concerns both on the LGBT discrimination front and on women's rights (in Morocco). None of those things are mentioned or acknowledged in the bid."
But one of the members of the bid's human rights board maintained Morocco is a "friendly and tolerant" country.
"I don't think that (ban on homosexuality) will be an issue because organizing a World Cup is mainly about infrastructure, being passionate about football, and the ability to organize a safe World Cup," said Jamal Elamrani, who represents the Junior Chamber International organization in Morocco representing people aged 18 to 40.
"We have our laws and we have our values and maybe FIFA also have their values. ... We may have some differences but we just need to have the ability to respect the differences and to be tolerant."
Associated Press writer Amira El Masiti in Rabat, Morocco, contributed to this report.