(Rabat) - Moroccan authorities are detaining Chekib el-Khayari for his human rights and whistle-blowing activities and should release him immediately, Human Rights Watch said today, after an on-the-ground investigation into the case. El-Khayari has been in detention for four weeks. The court has not yet formally charged him.
On February 21, 2009, el-Khayari appeared in a Casablanca court before Investigating Judge Jamal Serhane. The judge questioned el-Khayari on accusations that he had "undermined" or insulted state institutions or officials, an infraction punishable by a fine and up to one year in prison, under articles 263 and 265 of the penal code, said Mohamed Khattab, one of his lawyers, who was at the hearing. An official statement issued after el-Khayari's arrest added that he was also being investigated for having taken money from "foreign parties" to discredit the efforts taken by Moroccan authorities to combat drug-trafficking.
"El-Khayari has now been in pretrial detention for a month, and all Moroccan authorities can come up with is that he denigrated state efforts to suppress drug-trafficking," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. "It is clear that the progress Morocco has made in freedom of expression does not apply to whistleblowers."
El-Khayari, president of the Association for Human Rights in the Rif, was taken into custody on February 17, 2009, when he responded to a summons to report to the National Brigade of the Judicial Police in Casablanca. The following morning, plainclothes police searched his home in Nador, in northeast Morocco, without showing a warrant, confiscating his computer and papers related to the association.
El-Khayari remains in a cell by himself in Oukacha prison in Casablanca. Judge Serhane refused to release him pending trial. No date has been set for the second hearing before the investigating judge.
Before his arrest, el-Khayari made numerous statements to the international media and in conferences in Europe, questioning the diligence of Moroccan authorities in suppressing the smuggling of illegal drugs from Morocco to Spain. El-Khayari is also an activist on behalf of Amazigh (Berber) rights. He has criticized mistreatment by Moroccan security forces of migrants from other African countries who are trying to enter Europe clandestinely, and of Moroccan citizens by both Moroccan and Spanish security forces at the nearby frontier with the Spanish enclave of Melilla.
The repressive actions by Moroccan authorities make clear their intention to pressure el-Khayari and intimidate other human rights activists, regardless of the outcome of this court case, the Human Rights Watch research indicates. First, Investigating Judge Serhane refused to release el-Khayari provisionally. Moreover, according to Khattab and Ahmed Arhemouch, another of el-Khayari's lawyers, Judge Serhane has so far refused to provide the defense team access to el-Khayari's statement to the police, one of the main elements of the case file. Lawyers said the court usually grants prompt access to their clients' case files and called the judge's refusal until now highly unusual.
In Oukacha prison, authorities have refused to allow el-Khayari access to a radio, television or newspapers, even though other prisoners are permitted to have such amenities.
In the Rif, local authorities have blocked nearly all efforts to organize peaceful efforts to demand el-Khayari's release. They refused to give permission to a collective of associations to meet on March 2 in a public meeting hall in Nador to plan solidarity actions. (They did not interfere when the activists gathered instead in a nearby café.) Local authorities blocked similar events in the nearby city of el-Hoceima, and one planned for March 17 in the town of Midar. On March 14, police in Nador interrogated Mohamed el-Hammouchi, vice president of the Rif Association for Human Rights, for five hours about, among other things, his contacts with international organizations and about the visit by Human Rights Watch to the region.
Moroccan media have linked the el-Khayari case to the expulsion in early March of a suspected intelligence officer based in the Spanish consulate in Nador who, according to the press, had established close ties with the local civil society. Moroccan-Spanish relations have at times been tense due to drug interdiction policies, illegal migration and the contested Spanish enclaves of Melilla and Ceuta - all issues about which el-Khayari had spoken publicly.
"If there is a credible case against el-Khayari - and everything about their handling of this case suggests otherwise - authorities should charge him promptly with recognizable offenses other than acts of speech and grant him his provisional freedom and a fair trial," said Whitson.
One of his characteristically outspoken interviews aired on Radio Netherlands Worldwide in Arabic on January 16, 2009. (http://www.rnw.nl/hunaamsterdam/mideastafrica/16010905). In that interview, el-Khayari criticized recent arrests of supposed drug-traffickers in the region as a "sham" when the real traffickers "rule the region and even rule the affairs of the entire state from within Parliament. They are present in the major national parties that are in the government." El-Khayari, according to a transcript of the broadcast, named an alleged drug baron in a nearby village, "who is not afraid to say before one and all, ‘Just as King Mohamed VI rules in Rabat, so I rule here.'"
In a September 2008 broadcast on M6 French television, el-Khayari can be seen showing the reporter local launching points for drug-laden speedboats and challenging Moroccan security officials over their alleged inaction (http://www.dailymotion.com/video/x6r44w_enquete-exclusive-nador-maroc-le-de_news).
"If there are individuals who believe that el-Khayari has defamed them, let them pursue judicial remedies," said Whitson. "But laws that allow imprisonment - either as a pretrial measure or as a sentence - in response to criticism of individuals or of state institutions are incompatible with freedom of expression."
Human Rights Watch visited el-Khayari's parents in Nador on March 14. They said that since the February 18 search of their modest apartment - where Chekib maintains his office - authorities have neither harassed nor intimidated them. El-Khayari's brother Amine and Arhemouch, the lawyer, said that el-Khayari did not report having been physically mistreated while under police interrogation.
In December 2008, another activist, Brahim Sab'alil of the Moroccan Center for Human Rights, completed a six-month prison term on charges of "denigrating public authorities" by attributing to them "false crimes" in reporting that the police were responsible for causing deaths during clashes in the southern city of Sidi Ifni in June 2008.
"Morocco is to its credit experiencing a boom in human rights activity," said Whitson. "But that credit will be fully deserved only when the authorities stop using laws that criminalize speech to silence those who criticize the authorities on sensitive subjects."