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Morocco: Drop Criminal Charges Against Rights Defender, Journalist

Charged With Disseminating ‘False Information,’ Men Go on Trial July 1

Morocco should drop criminal charges against a human rights defender and a television reporter, both of whom are accused of disseminating “false information,” Human Rights Watch said today.

Al-Jazeera’s Rabat bureau chief Hassan Rachidi and rights defender Brahim Sab’alil go on trial July 1 before the Rabat Court of First Instance on charges of disseminating “false information.” The court will reportedly open a second trial of Sab’alil later in the day for disseminating “false information” in a separate incident.

Police arrested Sab’alil on June 27, a day after he took part in a press conference in Rabat, at which he presented evidence alleging human rights violations by security forces trying to quell sometimes violent protests in the southern city of Sidi Ifni that began June 7. The forces intervened to break up a protesters’ blockade of the city’s port.

“Authorities should want to find out the truth about the extent of police abuse in Sidi Ifni,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “They should allow an open discussion about the incident instead of using repressive laws to ‘shoot the messenger.’”

On June 27, several men came to Sab’alil’s Rabat home at about 1:30 a.m., saying they were police but without presenting identification or a warrant, his wife, Khadija Sared, told Al-Jarida al-Oula daily. She said the men took him away to an unknown destination.

Sab’alil is president of the Sidi Ifni section of the Moroccan Center for Human Rights (Centre Marocain des droits humains, CMDH), an independent organization that has provided ongoing information about human rights conditions in Sidi Ifni, where protests erupted largely over economic grievances. Sab’alil is also a member of the CMDH’s executive committee.

On June 29, authorities brought Sab’alil before the prosecutor at Rabat’s Court of First Instance on suspicion of disseminating “false information” at a June 26 press conference, where he released the preliminary findings of the CMDH’s report on the Sidi Ifni protests. Sab’alil remains in custody.

The extent of human rights violations in this remote coastal city 750 kilometers south of the capital of Rabat has been a source of contention since street protests turned violent on June 7. Some city residents have alleged that the police are responsible for deaths, rapes, and extensive property damage during punitive raids on homes. Authorities have acknowledged injuries among both civilians and the security forces but have heatedly denied any deaths. Human rights organizations and a commission appointed by Morocco’s parliament have traveled there to conduct investigations.

Two weeks prior to his June 26 arrest, authorities charged Sab’alil with disseminating “false information” for saying on behalf of the CMDH that security forces killed several Sidi Ifni residents during the June 7 unrest. Al-Jazeera’s Rachidi is facing the same charges for having aired this claim on the network.

Authorities cancelled Rachidi’s journalistic accreditation following Al-Jazeera’s report and the Qatar-based station’s insistence that it had acted properly in relaying this information.

Morocco’s press code states in Article 42: “the publication, dissemination, or reproduction, in bad faith, of false information ... when it can disturb public order or stir fright in the population, is punishable by prison for between one month and one year and a fine of 1200 to 100,000 dirhams [US $168 to $14,000].”

The CMDH preliminary report, presented on June 26, states: “What took place on ‘Black Saturday’ [June 7] amounts to a widespread and systematic attack against city residents, with a desire for vengeance, arbitrary raids on homes and the destruction of appliances, the theft of money and targeting women through torture, harassment as well as rape.”

Human Rights Watch did not conduct its own investigation of the events in Sidi Ifni.

“Prosecuting human rights defenders and journalists because of the information they disseminate is incompatible with Morocco’s commitment to respect freedom of expression, no matter where the ultimate truth lies,” said Whitson. “It also makes it harder to establish the truth in a credible fashion.”

Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, ratified by Morocco in 1979, requires Morocco to protect the freedom of expression, which includes the freedom to “seek, receive and impart information of all kinds.”

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