(Tunis) – A Moroccan court on July 25, 2017, sentenced a prominent journalist to three months in prison on a charge that violates his right to peaceful speech, Human Rights Watch said today. The journalist, Hamid Mahdaoui, is in prison in Casablanca and is under investigation on other charges.

A court of first instance in Al Hoceima sentenced Mahdaoui, who directs the news website badil.info, to the prison term and a fine of 20,000 dirhams (US$2,000) for helping to organize and inciting people to participate in an unauthorized protest. The case was based on comments he made in a public square in Al Hoceima on July 19, supporting the “Hirak” protest movement over government neglect of the central Rif region and condemning the government’s decision to ban a Hirak demonstration planned for July 20.

Screenshot from a video of Hamid Mahdaoui, a Moroccan journalist and director of the news website badil.info, speaking on his Youtube channel. 

© 2017 Hamid Mahdaoui/Youtube

“Disagreeing with a state policy and applauding public protest shouldn’t land anyone in prison,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “Instead of banning protests and imprisoning journalists, Morocco should enforce its own constitution, which guarantees free speech and free assembly.”

Mahdaoui became popular in Morocco from the many videos on social media that feature him offering political and social commentary and interviewing public figures. He had previously been convicted for disseminating “false news” in cases involving the then-minister of justice, a governor, and the head of the national police. In the first two cases, the court sentenced Mahdaoui to suspended prison terms; those verdicts are still on appeal. The third case was settled after the plaintiff dropped the charges.

On the evening of July 19, while Mahdaoui was walking in one of Al Hoceima’s main squares, fans stopped him, asked to take selfies with him, and pressed him to comment on the Hirak movement, his lawyer, Lahbib Hajji, told Human Rights Watch. A video of the gathering filmed by a police officer was used as evidence in Mahdaoui’s trial. According to a transcript of the video, Mahdaoui criticized the government’s decision to ban the July 20 protest, saying, “It is our right to protest in a peaceful and civilized manner; (…) I am oppressed and looked down upon, it is my right to express myself and demonstrate.”

Human Rights Watch watched the video and read the transcript and found nothing in either that contains a direct incitement by Mahdaoui to others to participate in the banned July 20 protest. Hajji, the lawyer, said that the court did not provide any other evidence than the video and transcript.

Plainclothes police agents arrested Mahdaoui on July 20 in Al Hoceima, as described by a friend accompanying him. After Mahdaoui spent three days in pretrial detention, a prosecutor charged him with “inciting people to commit a serious or minor offense by means of speeches and shouting … in a public place” and “participating in the organization of an unauthorized protest” (article 299-1 of Morocco’s penal code and article 14 of the Law on Public Assemblies, respectively). The appeals trial has yet to begin.

Morocco’s 2011 constitution guarantees the rights to freedom of expression, assembly, and peaceful protest. The Law on Public Assemblies requires organizers only to notify officials of an upcoming demonstration, rather than to obtain prior authorization. But the law allows local authorities to ban the event if they believe that it could disturb the public order.

Officials announced the ban on July 17, justifying it on the basis that the organizers of the march lacked the legal status that the Law on Public Assemblies requires of demonstration sponsors. The police dispersed the hundreds of people who attempted to demonstrate on July 20 despite the ban.

On July 28, authorities transferred Mahdaoui from Al Hoceima prison to Casablanca’s Oukacha prison, at the request of an investigative judge in Casablanca who was examining another case against him. The case is based on investigations into the Hirak protests conducted by the National Brigade of the Judiciary police, according to a communiqué issued July 28 by the office of the prosecutor attached to Casablanca’s Court of Appeals.

The second case is based on evidence collected from tapping Mahdaoui’s phone. On December 1, 2016, the president of Rabat’s Court of Appeals granted the Judiciary Police the authorization to tap 30 telephone lines, including Mahdaoui’s, as part of an investigation into the Hirak protests. Authorities produced a transcript, dated June 2, 2017, of a phone conversation between Mahdaoui and a man identified as “Noureddine,” purportedly a Moroccan anti-monarchy activist based in the Netherlands. 

According to the transcript, Noureddine mentioned that he and others intended to smuggle weapons in Morocco and “purchase tanks” to create armed strife in support of the Hirak movement. The transcript shows that Mahdaoui repeatedly urged Noureddine to abandon any such notion, highlighting that the Hirak protests were peaceful and should remain so.

According to the July 28 communiqué, the prosecutor asked the investigating judge to keep Mahdaoui in custody and look into whether he had failed to report an attempt to harm the state’s internal security, an offense that could bring up to five years in prison under article 209 of the penal code. The investigative judge accepted the prosecutor’s request.

The court rejected a petition for provisional release filed on August 2.

The Hirak protest movement in the Rif sprang from an incident in October 2016, in which a fishmonger was killed while trying to rescue his goods that authorities had just confiscated. The movement has staged mass protests to end what they consider to be the government’s discrimination against the region in terms of economic development.

“A journalist has the same right as any Moroccan citizen to criticize the prohibition of a protest rally without being sent to jail for incitement,” Whitson said.