‘The wide press coverage which met my long hunger-strike was ‘tarnishing’ the image of Morocco abroad. And my refusal to accept the transfer to a French prison … made the establishment press even more furious. But I could not have chosen to leave, for one simple reason: ridding myself in France of the political penalty which the Moroccan regime had given me would have amounted to accepting this shameful verdict.’ Ali Lmrabet, from his prison diary, first published in the French news weekly Le Courrier international on 18 September 2003 (Issue 672)
On 21 May 2003, Moroccan journalist Ali Lmrabet was found guilty of ‘insulting the person of the king’ and of having committed an ‘offence against the monarchy’ and ‘an offence against territorial integrity’: he was sentenced to three years in prison. The two weekly newspapers he edited, Demain magazine and Douman, were banned. The case against Lmrabet was based on articles and cartoons he published referring to the annual allowance that the Moroccan parliament grants the royal family. Lmrabet undertook two hunger strikes between May 2003 and January 2004, when he was released after a royal pardon.
Morocco’s political system is still evolving from a strongly centralised monarchy to a parliamentary system. The king retains much of the executive power and appoints the prime minister, but the parliament is democratically elected. King Mohammed VI succeeded his father, Hassan II, in 1999, and was initially seen as a moderniser. In a television address shortly after his father’s death the new monarch declared his commitment to constitutional monarchy, political pluralism, economic liberalism, and human rights.
However, local and foreign newspapers continue to be censored and journalists continue to be subjected to harassment, questioning, and arrest. In May 2003 a new anti-terrorism press law was adopted in Morocco. The legislation allows for prison sentences for some press offences, including sentences of three to five years in jail for ‘any attack on Islam, the monarchy or territorial integrity’.
Just fifteen months after his release, Lmrabet is in trouble again. On 12 April 2005 a court in Rabat banned Lmrabet from working as a journalist for ten years and gave him a hefty fine because of an article challenging the governmental position on refugees from Western Sahara.
To the south, Morocco claims and has occupied the territory of Western Sahara, which was formerly Spanish. While Morocco’s record there has improved in recent years, the British Government believes ‘more needs to be done on providing equality of opportunity for the people of the territory’.
According to PEN, Lmrabet’s current ban stems from a defamation suit resulting from an article which appeared in the 12 January 2005 edition of the weekly newspaper Al Moustakil in which he referred to Saharawi people in the Algerian city of Tindouf as ‘refugees’, contradicting the Moroccan Government’s position that they are prisoners of the Polisario Front – a rebel movement that is fighting for the independence of Western Sahara. The defamation suit was brought against the journalist by Ahmed El Kher, spokesman for the Association of the Families of Saharawi Victims of Repression in Tindouf camps.
A number of legal irregularities have been reported in connection with the sentencing of Ali Lmrabet, including the fact that El Kher does not have the legal status of a complainant – since, as Lmrabet’s lawyer points out, ‘an individual cannot claim to speak for a nation’.
The heavy sentence handed down to Ali Lmrabet was pronounced just as the journalist was expecting official permission to launch a new satirical weekly newspaper entitled Demain libéré, which was intended to replace his banned newspaper Demain magazine.
PEN and other human-rights organisations believe that Lmrabet is being persecuted in violation of his right to free expression, guaranteed by Article 19 of the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights, to which Morocco is a party. They believe Lmrabet’s sentencing is an attempt to silence him.
Readers can send appeals calling for the sentence passed down to Ali Lmrabet to be revoked and for him to be allowed to continue his profession as a journalist to:
His Excellency Driss Jettou
Prime Minister of the Kingdom of Morocco
Fax: 00 212 37 769 995
At the time of going to press, we received the following updates:
On 23 June 2005, an appeals court upheld the ten-year ban and fine against Lmrabet. In addition, the journalist is reportedly obliged to publish the verdict for 21 days in the Arabic-language daily Al Ahdath Al Maghribia. At eight pages, the move will cost Lmrabet up to £67,000.
Poet and writer al-Domaini, one of the subjects of May’s Silenced Voices, has received a nine-year prison sentence; Dr Matrouq al-Faleh has received a six-year sentence.