(New York) - The sentencing today of the human rights activist Chekib el-Khayari to three years in prison is a stark reminder of Morocco's tenuous and uneven progress on human rights, Human Rights Watch said. El-Khayari, who had criticized public officials for alleged complicity in drug-trafficking, was convicted of "gravely insulting state institutions," and of minor violations of regulations governing foreign bank accounts and currency.

El-Khayari is president of the Association for Human Rights in the Rif, an independent organization based in the Mediterranean coastal city of Nador. Before his arrest on February 17, 2009, el-Khayari had made numerous statements on drug-trafficking from northern Morocco to Europe, both to the international media and in conferences in Europe, accusing some officials of complicity in the trade or laxness in combating it. El-Khayari is also an activist for Amazigh (Berber) rights and has spoken out against mistreatment of migrants and abuses by both Moroccan and Spanish security forces at the border with the Spanish enclave of Melilla. All of these factors make the Rif region a sensitive issue in Morocco.

"Morocco is opening up in some respects, but its treatment of Chekib el-Khayari shows that when someone speaks out in ways that truly bother officials, they come down on him like a ton of bricks," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch.

Judge Jamel Serhane of the Casablanca Court of First Instance convicted el-Khayari of "gravely insulting state institutions" for his criticism of the state's record in policing the drug trade. The judge also convicted him of violating regulations concerning the opening of a bank account abroad and the importing of foreign currency into Morocco. One of el-Khayari's alleged offenses was to have opened a bank account in Melilla to deposit a payment of €225 (US$288) paid to him by the Spanish daily El País for an article he wrote in 2006.

El-Khayari's alleged financial violations concern small sums of money and were not added to the charge sheet until the very end of the investigative phase of his case. This fuels suspicion that, whether substantiated or not, the filing of these charges was motivated by the authorities' desire to discredit him and to jail him for longer than the penalty allowed under the "gravely offending state institutions" charge.

That charge, as set forth in articles 263 and 265 of the penal code, carries a penalty of one month to one year in prison and a fine of 1,200 to 5,000 dirhams (US$144 to US$600).

At his trial, el-Khayari argued, unsuccessfully, that he had not offended "state institutions" as such, but, rather, had criticized individual state agents. As has been widely reported by the media, a number of officials are currently on trial for alleged complicity in drug-trafficking in the Rif.

Regardless of the facts in el-Khayari's 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.

In addition to the three-year sentence, Judge Serhane fined el-Khayari about 753,000 dirhams (about US$90,360). El-Khayari, who is 30 years old, is being held at Oukacha Prison in Casablanca. Since his arrest, the court refused to provisionally free him, pending the trial. His lawyers said they plan to appeal the June 24 verdict.

"Today's harsh sentence against el-Khayari violates the basic right of freedom of expression, and the motive is to silence a leading human rights activist in the Rif region and to intimidate others," said Whitson.