Kaddour Terhzaz in 2006 before his imprisonment.

© 2006 Private

(Washington, DC) - Morocco should immediately release an elderly retired major-colonel serving a 12-year prison term on dubious charges of divulging a "national defense secret," Human Rights Watch said today in a letter to King Mohammed VI. 

A military court punished Kaddour Terhzaz, 72, for sharing "secret" information with a former air force pilot in 2005. But the ex-pilot had already conveyed the same information in an interview published in the Moroccan press the previous year, Human Rights Watch said.  The information concerned the equipment on board Moroccan air force jets more than a quarter-century earlier.

"When a military court convicts a retired officer in 2008 for sharing information three years earlier that concerns aircraft used in the 1970s, information that was already public anyway, you may well suspect that he's being punished for something else," said Sarah Leah Whitson,  Middle East director at Human Rights Watch.

In 2005, Terhzaz wrote a letter to the king deploring what he considered Morocco's shabby treatment of former air force pilots. The Polisario Front, which seeks independence for Western Sahara, had shot down these pilots and taken them prisoner during the war over Western Sahara in the 1970's.

Freed after a quarter century in captivity in Algeria and back home in Morocco, some of the former pilots tried to organize an association to lobby for better treatment.  In support of their cause, Terhzaz, who used to command the pilots, mentioned in his letter to the king that these pilots had gone into battle even though their jets lacked anti-missile defenses. He then gave a copy of his letter to one of the former pilots.

On November 8, 2008, authorities arrested Terhzaz and charged him with sharing a "national defense secret" - the absence of anti-missile systems on the fighter planes of the 1970s - with someone "not qualified" to know it - namely, the former pilot to whom he had given the letter.  In a brief and closed trial 19 days later, at which no witnesses were called to testify, a military court in Rabat sentenced Terhzaz to 12 years in prison.  The Supreme Court confirmed the verdict in May 2009.

Terhzaz has been in Salé prison for 15 months under harsh conditions, confined since November 30, 2009 to a one-person cell and deprived of nearly all contact with other prisoners. Authorities have also restricted his access to lawyers.

Human Rights Watch's letter to the king cited an article published in a Moroccan daily in 2004 that provided the same piece of information that cost Terhzaz a 12-year prison term when he mentioned it in a private communication one year later.

Terhzaz has both Moroccan and French citizenship.  Since his arrest, French authorities have not expressed concern publicly about his case.

"Kaddour Terhzaz is in prison for revealing a ‘secret' that was already public," Whitson said.  "The king, as an advocate of judicial reform and as commander-in-chief of the Royal Armed Forces, should take a special interest in remedying this clear miscarriage of justice."