New York, April 12, 2005—The Committee to Protect Journalists condemns a Moroccan court's decision today banning independent journalist and former newspaper owner Ali Lmrabet from practicing journalism for 10 years. The sentence comes just 10 days before Lmrabet was expected to receive a license to publish a new satirical weekly, Demain Libere.
Lmrabet, who is presently in Madrid, Spain, told CPJ that the Court of First Instance in Rabat found him guilty of defaming a pro-government group known as the Association of Relatives of Saharawi Victims of Repression and ordered him to pay 50,000 dirhams (US $5,825) in damages.
The charges against him stem from a lawsuit filed by the Association of Relatives of Saharawi Victims of Repression in response to an article that Lmrabet published in the Spanish daily El Mundo last November. In the article, Lmrabet referred to the Saharawi people in the Algerian city of Tindouf as refugees, contradicting the Moroccan government's position that they are prisoners of the Polisario Front—a rebel movement that is fighting for the independence of theWestern Sahara.
Neither the Association of Relatives of Saharawi Victims of Repression nor its spokesman Ahmed Khier were mentioned in Lmbaret's El Mundo article. No local journalist that CPJ spoke with had ever heard of the association or Khier prior to January, when Lmrabet first attempted to get a license to launch his successor weekly, Demain Libere. Local journalists told the CPJ that the organization might have been created or revived in response to Lmrabet's attempt to begin publishing.
Kheir has been repeatedly interviewed on television and pro-government newspapers, which have been ceaseless in their attacks on Lmrabet.
Throughout his career, Lmrabet has been harassed repeatedly for his criticism of the Moroccan government. In May 2003, he was jailed and found guilty of "insulting the king" and "challenging the territorial integrity of the state" when his two weeklies, the now-shuttered French-language Demain and the Arabic Douman, published articles and cartoons that lampooned the monarchy, as well as an interview with Abdullah Zaaza, an opponent of Morocco's king who called for the self-determination of the people of the Western Sahara. Lmrabet served nearly nine months of his three-year prison sentence but was released in January 2004 by a royal pardon.
Today's court decision comes one month after Morocco's minister of communication announced the upcoming reform of Morocco's press law—including the removal of penalties that imprison journalists
"This unjust ruling represents yet another setback for press freedoms in Morocco," CPJ Executive Director Ann Cooper said. "Countries that embrace a free and open press do not strip journalists of their right to practice their profession. We call on Moroccan authorities to see to it that Ali Lmrabet is able to carry out his work, without further interference."