(New York) - Moroccan authorities should free or grant a new and fair trial to Sidi Zakaria Moumni, a champion boxer, Human Rights Watch said today. A Rabat court of appeal convicted Moumni of fraud in January 2011 after trials that gave him no opportunity to confront his accusers and used a confession allegedly coerced by torture.
Moumni, 31, was convicted on charges that he took money from two Moroccans to secure them work in Europe and then did not deliver. The case is emblematic of a justice system that fails to guarantee fair trials in politically-sensitive cases, despite King Mohammed VI's pledges to enhance judicial independence, Human Rights Watch said.
"Whatever basis there may be for prosecution, Zakaria Moumni did not receive a fair trial," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. "Judges shouldn't be throwing people in prison on the basis of witnesses who can't be challenged and questionable confessions."
In an address to the nation on August 20, 2009, King Mohammed VI announced an "in-depth, comprehensive reform of the judicial system" to "make justice more trustworthy, credible, effective, and equitable, because it serves as a strong shield to protect the rule of law." He spoke of "moralizing justice and shielding it from corruption and abuse of authority."
Authorities detained Moumni on his arrival from Paris on September 27, 2010 and have kept him in custody ever since. Moumni, who lives near Paris with his French wife, says police held him in garde à vue (pre-arraignment) detention for three days without informing his family, and beat and ill-treated him so he would sign a "confession" they prevented him from reading.
Moumni repudiated the confession before both the prosecutor and the trial judge, and said he had been tortured, as the court's judgment notes. Nevertheless, the court convicted him on the basis of his contested confession and written complaints filed by his two accusers, who did not appear in court to testify and whom Moumni says he does not know and never met.
Moumni contends that the motive behind this prosecution was his persistent and public efforts to persuade the royal palace that he is entitled to a government job under a royal decree that stipulates benefits for Moroccan athletes who win international honors.
Moumni won the "light-contact" boxing world championship in 1999. He has repeatedly contacted Moroccan authorities, including the palace, over the years to claim a job in the Youth and Sports Ministry to which he believes he is entitled as a world title-winner, by virtue of Royal Decree (dhahir) No. 1194-66, dated March 9, 1967, and a later directive concerning its application. He states that in 2006 he was received at a high level in the royal court, but ultimately was rebuffed in his quest for a post. Since then he has made various efforts to re-contact the palace, including by approaching Mohammed VI's residences in France more than once when he knew the king was visiting - which he believes has motivated the government's criminal prosecution.
On January 25, 2010, Moumni attempted to deliver his request to the king and his entourage by approaching a château belonging to the monarch in Betz, 65 kilometers northeast of Paris, asking to be received. He was turned away by the guards.
Moumni has frequently aired his grievance to the Moroccan and international media. For instance, Al Jazeera television profiled his case in 2006, and featured Moumni criticizing the Youth and Sports Ministry and the Royal Federation of Light-Contact Boxing for blocking his access to a paid post. An article on the French news site Bakchich.info dated June 29, 2010, recounted Moumni's fruitless efforts to contact the palace. The Moroccan weekly al-Ayaam covered Moumni's grievances in detail in its July 8, 2010 issue, including his alleged rebuff by the palace.
Moumni's Arrest and Prosecution
Moumni had never previously been convicted of any offense, either in Morocco or France, according to state judicial records from both countries provided by his wife.
On or about January 26, 2010 - the date is illegible in the report in the case file - Driss Saïdi and Moustapha Wachkatt, who said they reside in the city of Errachidia, filed complaints with the prosecutor in Rabat, saying that on January 22, they met in a Rabat café with Moumni, who took 14,000 dirhams (US $1,820) from each of them in exchange for a promise to get them jobs in Europe. They said that they were not able to reach him after that, though.
Moumni told Human Rights Watch that on February 12 police at Casablanca airport stopped him as he returned to the country, telling him there was a warrant for him in connection with his having harmed "les sacralités," a term often used to refer to the monarchy and the person of the king. They released him after questioning him briefly, but stopped him for questioning again when he left the country three days later. They did not question him about the fraud complaint, Moumni said. They let him go, saying they would try to close the matter but that there were no guarantees, he said.
He heard nothing more until September 27. As his plane from Paris touched down at Rabat-Salé airport that day, he phoned his family to say he had landed, Moumni said. But at passport control, a policeman asked him to accompany him to an office. Moumni phoned a relative to say he expected to be delayed slightly before leaving the arrival zone of the airport. Instead, four men in civilian clothes searched him, handcuffed him, and escorted him to a car outside.
When Moumni did not emerge from passport control, his aunt, who was waiting for him, asked airport authorities about him and was told that he was not on the passenger list. In France, Moumni's wife, Taline Moumni, contacted Paris airport authorities, who confirmed that he had been on board the flight. She then contacted the Rabat-Salé airport and was told that no passenger by the name of Zakaria Moumni had arrived on that flight. The police post at the airport told her that no one by that name had been arrested, she told Human Rights Watch.
For three days, Moumni's family could obtain no information about his whereabouts. On September 30, Moumni phoned to inform them that he had just been tried and was awaiting the verdict in Salé prison.
Secret Detention and Allegations of Torture and a Forced Confession
Moumni told Human Rights Watch that after the police took him to a car outside the airport on September 27, they seated him in the back seat, between two men, blindfolded him, and had him put his head down. They drove him to an unknown location, where they put cuffs on his feet and started slapping and insulting him. They then took him to a room, stripped off his clothes and tied his hands to a chair while his feet remained bound.
The interrogators asked Moumni to tell them about his life, he said. When he described approaching a royal counselor about the post to which he believed he was entitled by law, the police started slapping and insulting him, saying, "You had better understand something." They poured water on him, forced him to sit on his knees, and at one point they beat him on his feet, he said. He remained naked until the following day, when they returned his pants and underpants but not his shirt. He remained blindfolded until they transported him from this detention center to a police station, on September 30.
At the police station, Moumni said, the police offered to release him if he signed a promise to stop approaching the king's residence. When he hesitated, they said that they would ask him instead to sign other documents acknowledging that they had returned his cellphone and personal effects. When he asked to read those documents, they blindfolded him again and threatened that if he did not sign, they would send him back to the interrogation center. He signed a series of documents without being allowed to read them, he said.
Many of the abuses that Moumni alleges he suffered are the same that Morocco practices against terrorism suspects, as Human Rights Watch documented in an October 2010 report. These include detention in an unacknowledged place, failure to inform the family about the detention as required by law, torture and ill-treatment during interrogation, and compelling the accused to sign a statement without reading it.
On September 30, court documents show, authorities brought Moumni before deputy prosecutor Ilyas Saloub, attached to the Rabat Court of First Instance. Saloub read to Moumni the charges against him and questioned him about his statement to the police, dated September 29, in which he "confessed" to having defrauded two Moroccan citizens by taking 14,000 dirhams from each in exchange for a promise to get them jobs in Europe. Moumni denied the charges, as the hearing record notes. The record also states that Moumni waived his right to be represented by a lawyer. Moumni signed that record, and was tried the same day without a lawyer.
Moumni said that he first learned the contents of the statement he signed in police custody when he stood before the deputy prosecutor.
Moumni told Human Rights Watch that the trial later that day was very brief. He said that Presiding Judge Mohamed Yamoudi asked him perfunctory questions, such as whether he knew the complainants. He replied that he did not and had never heard their names before. He also asked the judge to let him call his family or his lawyer. The judge concluded the trial without calling any witnesses.
On October 4 the court found Moumni guilty of defrauding others, under article 540 of the penal code, and sentenced him to three years in prison.
Moumni told Human Rights Watch that he also told the prosecutor of the torture and ill-treatment he says he endured while in police custody, which the hearing record does not mention. Moumni said that he explained in detail to the prosecutor and then to the trial judge what he had endured, and showed both of them injuries to his legs that he said were the result of police beatings. The defense lawyer, Jamaï, visited Moumni in prison for the first time on October 1 - the day after his trial - and observed cuts and bruises on one of his legs, Jamaï told Human Rights Watch. He also said that Moumni complained to him that his arms ached from being handcuffed for most of three days.
To Human Rights Watch's knowledge, the court did not investigate Moumni's allegation of torture and ill-treatment. The case file includes a joint statement before the prosecutor, dated September 29, 2010, signed by lawyer Abdessamad Raji Sanhaji, on behalf of the two complainants, reaffirming their accusations. But the court did not summon them to testify in front of the defendant the next day, and issued its verdict without hearing from them.
On October 6 Jamaï filed an appeal. He also petitioned the court to summon the two plaintiffs and engaged a bailiff (huissier) to deliver the summons to the complainants. The bailiff looked for one of the complainants and wrote a statement saying that the complainant could not be found at the address he had provided. The appeals court postponed the trial twice because the complainants did not appear, Jamaï said.
Suspicious of the complainants' statements, Jamaï also asked the court to summon the police agent who reportedly took their statements on September 29.
The appeals court eventually heard the appeal in a single session on January 13, at which it did not summon the complainants or the police agent who took their complaint. As in the trial in first instance, the lawyer designated by the complainants in their complaint did not attend. It remained unclear why the complainants, who presumably would seek restitution of the money that Moumni had supposedly obtained from them fraudulently, never showed up to present their case against him.
The court, with Judge Hachemi Slimani presiding, reaffirmed the conviction, but reduced Moumni's term to two and-a-half years. The court's judgment notes the defendant's statement that he does not know his accusers, took no money from them, and was tortured in detention. It notes also that the defense asked the policeman to appear as a witness. But it nevertheless based its guilty verdict on Moumni's "confession" to the police, which it deemed credible.
Moumni is serving his sentence in Roumani prison, a two-hour drive from Rabat.
Morocco prosecuted in an unfair trial another person who addressed the palace in a critical fashion. Retired Colonel Kaddour Terhzaz was convicted of "revealing national defense secrets" in November 2008, after he drafted a letter to the king critical of the state's treatment of Moroccan soldiers who had come home after having been held as prisoners of war in Polisario-run camps in Algeria.
"Zakaria Moumni appears to have been imprisoned for his public lobbying and criticism of the royal court after trials that fell far short of international fair trial standards," Whitson said. "This does not sound like the kind of independent justice that King Mohamed VI pledged to establish in 2009."