Monday, August 29, 2005

Another Sahara Crisis in Morocco

Another hunger strike in Moroccan prisons. A group of some 30 Sahraoui prisoners have gone on hunger strike. Their demands are humanitarian: They are demanding better jail conditions and to transfered to facilities closer to where their families live.

I found this on the subject, for those who might be interested.

Morocco urged to talk to W.Sahara hunger strikers

29 Aug 2005 19:06:59 GMT
Source: Reuters

By Souhail Karam

RABAT, Aug 29 (Reuters) - Morocco's leading independent human rights group AMDH called on the government on Monday to start talks to try to end a hunger strike by prisoners from the Western Sahara who demand better jail conditions.

The Moroccan Human Rights Association (AMDH) said 29 prisoners in three prisons, one of them in the disputed territory and two in northern Moroccan cities, had refused to eat for three weeks.

"The strike has started to seriously take its toll on their health. Their lives are at risk now," said Abdelilah Benabdeslam, a spokesman for the Moroccan Human Rights Association.

A justice ministry official said only 20 to 22 detainees were actually on hunger strike.

They want to be moved to jails that are closer to their relatives for visits and the lifting of Morocco's heavy security deployment in Western Sahara's capital Laayoune, said AMDH, which has visited some of the detainees.

A total of 37 residents were detained during and after anti-Moroccan riots in Western Sahara in May. Eight have not joined the hunger strike.

A dozen of the 37 have been handed jail terms of up to five years for offences including sabotage of public property and use of weapons against public officials. The rest are to be tried next month.

"The verdicts were the results of unfair trials and those awaiting to be tried have been held for much longer periods than what the law stipulates, in clear violation of their basic rights as defendants," Benabdeslam said.

Human rights groups say some of the detained have been tortured -- a charge denied by Moroccan authorities.

AMDH and two other rights groups urged authorities to hold talks with the detainees to try to end the hunger strike.

Authorities say the May riots were instigated by supporters of the Polisario Front, which seeks independence for the territory. Several people were hurt in clashes with police.

The Polisario Front, based in Algeria, urged the African Union this weekend to intervene and help secure the release of the 37 detainees, whom it called "political prisoners".

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Freedom of Speech in Morocco

This piece appeared in the Los Angeles Times about the lack of Freedom of Speech in Morocco these days. Its worth reading.

Muffled speech in Morocco

LAST MONTH, A SMALL ITEM in Morocco's most provocative magazine pointed out that a female member of Parliament had once been a cheikha — a kind of Moroccan cabaret dancer. She sued, and now the writer and the magazine's editor face prison time and what may be the harshest fine ever handed down in a Moroccan libel case.

Never mind that the member of Parliament was not actually named in the magazine. Or that the allegation was true. Or that the judge did not listen to arguments from either side. Or that the magazine's editor, Ahmed R. Benchemsi, not only wasn't at the hearing to defend himself but was out of the country at the time — serving, as it happens, as an editorial fellow on the Los Angeles Times editorial board.

While it isn't Times policy to harbor fugitives from Third World justice, nor to argue their cases in print, Benchemsi's plight is so illustrative of what passes for justice and freedom of speech in much of the world — and of the kind of low-grade harassment journalists face even from many "progressive" regimes — that it deserves comment. Morocco is a beacon of relative freedom and tolerance in the Arab world; King Mohammed VI is a close ally of the U.S., and President Bush in his State of the Union address cited the country as an example of the positive democratic reforms starting to take hold across the region.

Yet consider some of the details from Benchemsi's case. His French-language magazine, TelQuel, takes impish glee in tweaking the establishment, exposing such taboo subjects as the king's monthly salary. The cheikha item was just a gossipy tidbit, and the plaintiff's lawyer was asking for only a fine, not prison time.

The judge ignored a letter from Benchemsi, presented by his lawyer, asking for a postponement until he returned to the country. At the hearing Monday, the judge recessed at noon and said proceedings would resume at 2:30 p.m. Then the judge returned to court at 2:15 p.m. and ruled that, because neither side's attorney was present, the case was closed. Shortly afterward, he sentenced both Benchemsi and the article's writer to two months in prison and fined the magazine the equivalent of $100,000 — a fee so punitive by Moroccan standards that it could force the magazine out of business. Benchemsi plans to appeal when he returns to Morocco in September.

Benchemsi is probably correct when he asserts that the ruling had little to do with the cheikha item; someone in Morocco's establishment clearly doesn't appreciate TelQuel's independent journalism. But if such an arbitrary ruling isn't reversed, Morocco's image in the outside world will take a deserved blow.