Moroccan editor given politicized prison sentence

New York, June 15, 2010—The Committee to Protect Journalists called on the Moroccan judiciary today to overturn a prison sentence given Friday to Taoufik Bouachrine, editor of the independent daily Akhbar al-Youm, on politicized criminal charges.

A court in Rabat sentenced Bouachrine to six months in prison on charges of real estate and sales fraud, the editor told CPJ. He was also fined 500 Moroccan dirhams (US$56) and ordered to pay 10,000 Moroccan dirhams (US$1,120) in damages to Abd al-Wahed Qebli, the former owner of a Rabat villa that Bouachrine had bought three years ago, Bouachrine’s lawyer told CPJ.

The former owner first filed a complaint three years ago accusing Bouachrine of failing to honor the agreed price, according to Agence France-Presse. The journalist told CPJ that a court had “declared my innocence in 2008 and 2009,” but Qebli filed another complaint in April. Bouachrine’s lawyer, Abdellatif Wahbi, told CPJ that according to Moroccan law, it is illegal to reopen a civil case that has been closed.

The case was brought eight months after Bouachrine received a four-year suspended prison sentence over publishing a cartoon that depicted the wedding of Prince Moulay Ismail, King, Mohammed VI’s cousin. The police shut down Akhbar al-Youm in September 2009 after the cartoon was published. Khalid Gueddar, the cartoonist, was also given a four-year suspended sentence. The newspaper was re-launched in December 2009 under a new name, Akhbar al-Youm al-Maghrebia, but it is still referred to popularly as Akhbar al-Youm.

“The Moroccan authorities are clearly using criminal charges to silence Taoufik Bouachrine,” said CPJ Middle East and North Africa Program Coordinator Mohamed Abdel Dayem. “This is yet another in a series of politicized verdicts against the independent press. We urge the appeals court to show that there is no place in a democracy for such misuse of the courts by overturning Bouachrine’s conviction.”

Bouachrine’s case is the latest in a string of politicized prosecutions of critical journalists. Ali Amar, former editor of Le Journal Hebdomadaire and the author of a critical book about the king, was charged last week with stealing computer equipment, international human rights organizations and local media reported. The hearing was postponed to June 22.

Over the past year, CPJ has documented multiple cases in which authorities have used the courts to settle scores with journalists. Independent journalist Ali Anouzla, editor of Al-Jarida al-Oula, which was shut down due to financial difficulties last month, and Bouachrine warned of what they called “Tunisian-style” tactics to stifle and discredit independent journalists with criminal charges. 

Bouachrine announced on Sunday in his column that he will stop writing until the appeals court reviews his case, in protest of the government’s persecution of journalists.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Ali Amar’s hearing date has been changed to June 22.