Protesters chant during a demonstration in the northern Moroccan town of Imzouren on June 11, 2017. A Moroccan court sentenced two journalists to prison in late June 2018. (AFP/Fadel Senna)
Protesters chant during a demonstration in the northern Moroccan town of Imzouren on June 11, 2017. A Moroccan court sentenced two journalists to prison in late June 2018. (AFP/Fadel Senna)

Moroccan court sentences two journalists to several years in prison

New York, July 3, 2018–Moroccan authorities should immediately release journalists Mohamed al-Asrihi and Hamid al-Mahdaoui and drop all charges against them, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today. The Casablanca Court of Appeals sentenced al-Asrihi on June 26 to five years in prison and a fine of 2,000 Moroccan dirhams (US$210), according to news reports; the court sentenced al-Mahdaoui to three years in prison and a fine of 3,000 Moroccan dirhams (US$315) in a separate case on June 28, according to news reports.

A lawyer representing al-Mahdaoui, Lahbib Hajji, told CPJ that he had filed an appeal on his behalf. CPJ could not determine whether al-Asrihi planned to appeal.

“The sentencing of Mohamed al-Asrihi and Hamid al-Mahdaoui, who have already been in prison for a year, is an affront to freedom of the press and calls into question Morocco’s tolerance of critical reporting,” CPJ Middle East and North Africa Program Coordinator Sherif Mansour said in Washington, D.C. “Both journalists should be released, and Morocco’s leaders should make it known that they support a free and independent press.”

Al-Asrihi, a video journalist and director of the independent news website Rif24, has been in prison since being arrested on June 6, 2017, after reporting on protests organized by Al-Hirak al-Shaaby, or the Popular Movement, in the northern Moroccan city of Al-Hoceima, CPJ previously reported. According to a copy of the verdict sent by al-Asrihi’s brother Wail al-Asrihi and viewed by CPJ, al-Asrihi was convicted of “undermining Morocco’s internal security by receiving donations and funds for activities and propaganda undermining the Kingdom of Morocco’s unity and sovereignty, and the loyalty of its citizens,” as well as “participating in unauthorized demonstrations,” “inciting against the unity of the kingdom,” “insulting government officials,” and “claiming to be a journalist without having acquired the necessary accreditation.”

According to the Moroccan magazine Telquel, al-Asrihi was convicted alongside 52 activists involved in the Al-Hirak al-Shaaby movement.

Al-Mahdaoui, an editor and reporter for the online outlet El-Badil, was arrested on July 20, 2017, while traveling to northern Morocco to cover the same protests, and on July 25, 2017, was sentenced to three months in prison for “committing misdemeanors through speeches and shouting in public places,” a sentence that was extended to a year on September 12, according to CPJ research.

The verdict against al-Mahdaoui handed down last week was for a separate charge of “failure to report a crime threatening national security,” Reuters reported. Al-Mahdaoui was originally charged under the same case as Mohamed al-Asrihi and the 52 activists, but his case was separated from the others’ two days before his sentencing, according to the news website Morocco World News.

One of al-Mahdaoui’s lawyers, Abdulaziz al-Nuweidi, told the Moroccan online magazine Al3omk that the charges against his client were baseless because they stemmed from an unsolicited call he received from someone claiming to be smuggling weapons into the country. He added that Moroccan authorities had eavesdropped on the call but did not arrest al-Mahdaoui until a month later.

Hajji and Wail al-Asrihi confirmed separately to CPJ that both journalists are being held in Casablanca’s Okasha Prison. Wail al-Asrihi told CPJ he did not know whether his brother would appeal.

A voicemail message left with the press secretary at the Moroccan embassy in Washington, D.C., was not returned.