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Hormatallah released from "cemetery for the living"

The release of Mustafa Hormatallah, a Moroccan editor at the independent weekly Al-Watan Al An, prompted a memorable scene on July 25 as he exited Akacha Prison in Casablanca, Morocco's most populous and business-oriented city.

Scores of well-wishers including relatives, friends, and representatives of the of the National Syndicate of the Moroccan Press and human rights groups flocked early that Friday morning to this notorious prison to greet Hormatallah as he took his first steps toward freedom. They gave him a warm welcome after his eight months of captivity for practicing independent journalism. At 9:45 a.m. local time, he emerged from the gate of what he called a "cemetery for the living."

His ordeal began in July 2007 when he and his editor Abderrahim Ariri were arrested and charged with possessing classified documents obtained through "criminal means." Their arrest came only a few days after Al-Watan Al An published in its July 14 edition a story titled "The secret reports behind Morocco's state of alert." The paper has a history of publishing stories critical of the authorities.

In August, a Casablanca court sentenced Hormatallah to eight months in jail and Ariri to a six-month suspended term. The court also fined each of them 1,000 dirhams (US$120).  The Supreme Court upheld Hormatallah's sentence in February. He went on a hunger strike in May in protest.

Although the Moroccan authorities turned a deaf ear to repeated calls to release him, Hormatallah maintains that these calls  and "the strong statements" issued by local and international rights groups "had a positive impact on the developments" in the case filed against Al-Watan Al An and provided him with "energy, protection and a zest for living, even behind bars."  

"It never occurred to me that my detention would provoke such a huge campaign of solidarity in Morocco and other parts of the world," Hormatallah told CPJ. "You have no idea how your solidarity and action helped make my detention bearable and strengthened my commitment to independent journalism." He said he was grateful to nearly 130 lawyers and press freedom advocates worldwide who had volunteered to defend him.

He was adamant that this "huge campaign of solidarity" would "bear fruits not only in Morocco, but also in neighboring North African countries like Algeria, Mauritania, and Tunisia."

A rally held on July 28 at the Lawyers Club in Casablanca by the National Syndicate of the Moroccan Press to celebrate Hormatallah's release seems to have boosted his determination to walk with other brave Moroccan journalists and civil society advocates on the thorny path to freedom of expression.

He explained that most inmates in Akacha Prison held independent Moroccan journalists in high esteem and "expressed feelings of genuine respect and solidarity in an unmistakable way." He added that this made him immune to different forms of petty harassment and contributed to shattering his prejudices about his prisoners.  It also convinced him of the need to write a book to raise "awareness about the plight [of the prisoners he met] and do them justice."

CPJ noted in a 2007 special report that press freedom in Morocco has notably regressed in recent years. Independent journalists have been the targets of a series of politicized court cases, financial pressures, and harassment by the authorities. "His Majesty King Mohamed VI gave his green light for independent journalism," Hormatallah said. "But some influential individuals are still nostalgic for an era when the press was tightly restricted."

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