- An appeals court in Morocco's capital, Rabat, has upheld journalist Ali Lmrabet's criminal conviction, which resulted in his imprisonment and the banning of his two magazines. The court only decided to reduce his prison sentence from four to three years.
According to Mr Lmrabet's lawyer, the court decided to reduce the prison sentence from four to three years, but kept the ban on the French language weekly 'Demain' and its Arabic sister publication 'Douman'. The 20,000-dirham (US$ 2,000) fine that the previous court levied on Mr Lmrabet was also upheld.
His lawyer said that the next step is to file an appeal to have the case heard at the Supreme Court. He also said that due to Mr Lmrabet's poor health - the result of a hunger strike he began on 6 May to protest his harassment and imprisonment - Mr Lmrabet did not attend today's hearing. The journalist is currently at the Ibn Sina hospital in Rabat.
Ali Lmrabet, owner and editor of the two weeklies, was jailed on 21 May after a court in Rabat found him guilty of "insulting the King" and "challenging the territorial integrity of the state."
His conviction stems from articles and cartoons published in his magazines, including an interview with Abdullah Zaâzaa, an opponent of Morocco's monarchy who called for the self-determination of the people of Western Sahara; a satirical photomontage showing photos from the wedding of former Interior Minister Driss Basri's daughter superimposed on a photo from King Muhammad VI's wedding; an article about the royal court's finances; and a cartoon that criticised public displays of reverence to authority.
In a nearly unprecedented move against a journalist in Morocco, Mr Lmrabet was imprisoned upon his original conviction by the Rabat Court of First Instance. The judge invoked Article 400 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, which allows for the court to jail defendants who are appealing their convictions if they are deemed dangerous or likely to flee. The appeals court judge rejected defence motions to obtain Mr Lmrabet's provisional release.
Morocco's constitution guarantees freedom of expression. But the press code, revised in 2002, provides prison terms for a wide array of speech offences, such as the ones for which Mr Lmrabet was convicted.
After this confirmation of the verdict on appeal, Mr Lmrabet's only legal recourse is a pourvoi en cassation before the Supreme Court, a challenge that can be based on procedural but not on substantive issues.
- This is a sad day for those who placed hope in the King's pledges to expand public liberties, said Hanny Megally of the US-based group Human Rights Watch. The group protested the deteriorating human rights situation in Morocco.
- With this unjust ruling, Morocco joins those countries in the region that imprison journalists, added Mr Megally. Mr Lmrabet's weeklies were "among the brightest indicators of free expression in Morocco. They belong on the newsstands, and [Mr Lmrabet] belongs at his editorial desk, not in a prison cell."
Also the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) reacted strongly to the appeals court's decision. The group also recalled that, in addition to Mr Lmrabet, Mustafa Alaoui, editor of the weekly 'Al-Ousboua', also was detained on 5 June under Morocco's recently enacted anti-terrorism law.
Mr Alaoui had been arrested for publishing a communiqué issued by an Islamist group that claimed responsibility for some of the multiple suicide bombings in Casablanca on 16 May. No charges have been filed against Mr Alaoui, who "suffers from diabetes and is also reportedly in poor health in Sale prison near Rabat," according to CPJ.
- These actions seriously damage Morocco's reputation as a country that has shown greater tolerance than its neighbours, and greater respect for basic press freedoms, said CPJ Executive Director Ann Cooper. "We once again call for the immediate release of Ali Lmrabet and Mustafa Alaoui, both of whom are in poor health," she added.
Also the two groups Writers in Prison Committee and International PEN today repeated their position that "a custodial sentence for the offence of libel is wholly inappropriate." They urged members to send appeals to King Mohammed VI, calling for "the quashing of Ali Lmrabet's sentence and his immediate release."
Finally, the human rights group Amnesty International today issued an urgent action appeal for "prisoner of conscience" Lmrabet. Amnesty member should immediately send letters to Moroccan authorities, calling for Mr Lmrabet's "immediate and unconditional release as a prisoner of conscience, jailed solely for the legitimate and peaceful expression of his beliefs."
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