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The affirmation Tuesday of a 3-year prison term for journalist Ali Mrabet is a grave blow to press freedom in Morocco, Human Rights Watch said today. A Rabat appeals court upheld a lower court verdict that also banned the independent weeklies that Mrabet directs, Demain and its Arabic sister Douman.

“With this unjust ruling, Morocco joins those countries in the region that imprison journalists,” said Hanny Megally, executive director of Human Rights Watch’s Middle East and North Africa division. “Mrabet’s weeklies were among the brightest indicators of free expression in Morocco. They belong on the newsstands, and Mrabet belongs at his editorial desk, not in a prison cell.”

Mrabet has been in prison since his May 21 lower-court conviction on charges of “insulting the king,” “undermining the monarchy, and “endangering the integrity of national territory” for articles, interviews and cartoons that appeared in the two Casablanca-based publications. The appeals court reduced his prison term from four to three years but left in force a fine of 20,000 dirhams (about U.S. $2,168).

Mrabet began a hunger strike on May 6 to protest the government action against him and against his printer. He has been hospitalized since May 26 due to his hunger strike and did not attend the court’s ruling. The items in Demain and Douman that prompted the charges under the press code were: · An article about the budget that the state allocates to the royal court; · A montage that allegedly manipulated photographs from King Mohamed VI’s wedding to ridicule ex-interior minister Driss Basri and other political figures; · A cartoon on the “history of slavery” that lampooned the obsequiousness of local officials toward the monarchy; · An interview with Moroccan political activist Abdullah Zaâzaa in which he restated his well-known views critical of the monarchy as an institution and in favor of self-determination for the people of the disputed Western Sahara territory.

In a nearly unprecedented move against a journalist in Morocco, Mrabet 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 defense motions to obtain Mrabet’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 offenses, such as the ones for which Mrabet was convicted.

After this confirmation of the verdict on appeal, Mrabet’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 Megally.

On April 17, prior to this conviction, Moroccan police prevented Mrabet from traveling to France, a move that was rescinded a week later. In November 2001, a court convicted him for an article in Demain concerning reports that one of the royal palaces might be sold for redevelopment. Sentenced then to four months in prison and a fine, Mrabet had been free pending an appeal of that verdict.

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