The Moroccan authorities' detention of journalist and editor Ali Anouzla is an assault on the country's independent media and he must be released immediately and unconditionally, Amnesty International said today.
Plain-clothes police arrested Ali Anouzla at his home in Rabat early on Tuesday, shortly after his outspoken Arabic-language online news outlet Lakome published a story about a video by the armed group al-Qa'ida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). He has yet to be charged with any crime.
"We fear Ali Anouzla is being punished for Lakome's editorial independence and criticism of government policies, in what signals a worrying setback for freedom of expression in Morocco. He is a prisoner of conscience and should be released immediately and unconditionally," said Philip Luther, Middle East and North Africa Programme Director at Amnesty International.
When police arrested Ali Anouzla on Tuesday, they searched his home and confiscated books and documents as well as his personal computer. They then took him to Lakome's offices, where they also confiscated several items including key computer parts, according to journalists who were present at the scene.
On Tuesday the General Crown Prosecutor of Rabat released a public statement announcing that he had ordered the editor's arrest.
According to the statement, his arrest was linked to Lakome's publication of the AQIM video titled "Morocco: Kingdom of Corruption and Despotism". The Prosecutor claims the video contained "a clear invitation and a direct incitement to take part in acts of terrorism in the Moroccan kingdom".
The Lakome article in question actually criticized the armed group's video and could not be seen as endorsing its calls. Lakome did not republish the video itself, but posted a link to an article on the website of Spanish newspaper El País, which had posted the video.
Morocco's Ministry of Justice announced on Tuesday that it also intends to take legal action against El País over its publication of the video.
Ali Anouzla has not yet been charged, but Amnesty International fears he could be prosecuted under Morocco's anti-terrorism law, which undermines fair-trial guarantees and other human rights. His lawyers told Amnesty International that they have received authorization to visit him in detention on Friday.
Moroccan law does not provide adequate safeguards for suspects in terrorism-related cases. "Terrorism" is vaguely defined, and an amendment to the Penal Code allows the authorities to hold terrorism suspects in garde à vue (pre-arraignment detention) for up to 12 days. In addition, it extends the period in which they are denied contact with their lawyers for up to six days. These amendments make detainees vulnerable to human rights violations including torture or other ill-treatment, as well as affecting their right to an adequate defence.
"Journalists should never be imprisoned simply for carrying out their legitimate professional activities," said Philip Luther.
"The prospect of Ali Anouzla facing an unfair trial on terrorism charges is extremely worrying and likely to have a chilling effect on free expression in Morocco."
The arrest of Ali Anouzla takes place in a wider context of harassment and intimidation against journalists critical of the authorities in Morocco.
On 17 June 2013, Moroccan authorities convicted journalist Youssef Jajili, editor of Al An magazine, of defamation, handing down a two-month suspended prison sentence.
Omar Brouksy, an Agence France Presse reporter, was beaten by police officers in August 2012 for reporting on an opposition-led demonstration against a traditional ceremony of allegiance to the King.
Two months later, the Ministry of Communication revoked his accreditation after he published an article reporting that "candidates close to the royal palace" were competing for parliamentary seats in legislative elections in Tangiers.
To date, no investigation into Brouksy's assault has taken place and without his accreditation, he cannot work as a journalist in his own country.
Meanwhile, Morocco's Press Code and Penal Code continue to criminalize peaceful expression when it is deemed to amount to defamation, to undermine the monarchy or the territorial integrity of Morocco, or to denigrate Islam.