(Washington, DC) - The continuing detention of Chekib el-Khayari shows the stark limits to Morocco's tolerance for criticism, Human Rights Watch said today. The human rights activist and whistleblower from the northern city of Nador has been in pretrial detention for more than 10 weeks.
On April 23, 2009, el-Khayari appeared before an investigating judge, Jamal Serhane, for the first substantive hearing since his arrest on February 18. At the hearing, Khayari defended himself against charges that he had "gravely offended" Moroccan state institutions by criticizing lax drug interdiction policies. At this hearing, he also learned that the prosecutor had formulated three new charges against him, related to minor infractions of customs and currency regulations that date to 2006.
"It's pretty clear that the new charges against el-Khayari appear to be one more attempt to silence a critic on politically sensitive issues, and to intimidate other activists," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. "El-Khayari's prosecution shows that despite Morocco's reputation for open debate and a thriving civil society, the authorities are still ready to imprison activists who cross certain red lines."
Before his arrest, el-Khayari had 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 northern Morocco to Europe. El-Khayari is also an activist on behalf of Amazigh (Berber) rights. He has criticized mistreatment by Moroccan security forces of migrants from other 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.
El-Khayari's lawyers said they learned of the new charges only minutes before the hearing got under way in the Casablanca Court of First Instance. The charges relate to el-Khayari's handling of €225 (US$288) that the Spanish daily El País had paid him for an essay he contributed to the issue of July 4, 2006. He is alleged to have opened a bank account in Melilla to deposit the check from El País, and later to have withdrawn the money, without using a Moroccan bank as an intermediary or informing Morocco's Office of Currency Exchange (le Bureau des changes).
The prosecution alleges that these transactions violated Moroccan laws governing the opening of bank accounts abroad by Moroccans residing in Morocco, and the transfer by Moroccans of currency into Morocco. Violations are subject to penalties of up to five years in prison.
"Whether or not el-Khayari actually violated these currency regulations, the decision to charge him at this late date and for such a small amount only reinforces the impression of a politically motivated prosecution," said Whitson.
Upon completing his investigation, Judge Serhane is to recommend whether to refer the case to trial and, if so, finalize the charge sheet. He has refused to release el-Khayari pending trial. However, the court will be required to free el-Khayari provisionally by May 21 if he has not yet been tried, since Moroccan law limits pretrial detention to three months when the charges relate to minor offenses (délits), as they do in this case.
The charge of "gravely offending state institutions" under Article 263 and Article 265 of the Penal Code carries a penalty of one month to one year in prison and a fine of 1200 to 5000 dirhams (US$144 to US$600). At the April 23 hearing, el-Khayari contended that he had not criticized state institutions as such, but only state agents who were not diligently enforcing drug interdiction laws.
Regardless of the facts in this case, laws that criminalize and provide prison terms for "gravely offending state institutions" are incompatible with international law governing the right to freedom of expression, which stress in particular the need to protect the freedom to criticize politicians and state authorities.
Judge Serhane has allowed el-Khayari's lawyers access to the complete case file after initially refusing to provide them with parts of it. However, in a departure from standard practice, he has allowed them to consult it only at the courthouse, and has not permitted them to make photocopies.