Tunis — A Moroccan court has sentenced a prominent journalist to three years in prison on a dubious charge of failing to report a security threat, Human Rights Watch said today. Authorities have repeatedly prosecuted Hamid El Mahdaoui, known for criticizing the Moroccan government on social media, including for charges that violated his right to peaceful speech. He is already serving a one-year sentence for "inciting people to participate in an unauthorized protest."
On June 28, 2018, a Casablanca court of first instance sentenced El Mahdaoui to the prison term and a fine of 3,000 dirhams (US$315) based on a phone call he received from a man who said he intended to create armed strife in Morocco. The court did not accept Mahdaoui's main line of defense, which was that, as a well-known journalist, he repeatedly receives calls from strangers, and that he had concluded the caller's declarations were idle chatter that did not warrant alerting the authorities. The journalist has appealed the verdict.
"The charges against Hamid El Mahdaoui are presented by Moroccan authorities as about protecting national security," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. "But in reality, they reek of an arbitrary use of the law on an outspoken journalist by authorities who have been radically reducing the space for critical reporting and commentary."
El Mahdaoui was arrested on July 20, 2017, in Al Hoceima, the main city of northern Morocco's Rif region. The day before, he had made public comments in one of the city's squares condemning the government's decision to ban a demonstration planned for July 20 by the Hirak, a movement that had been organizing protests since October 2016 over the perceived government neglect of the Rif region. A court sentenced him on September 11, 2017, on the unauthorized protest charge.
Shortly after his arrest, El Mahdaoui was charged along with 53 Hirak activists and transferred to Casablanca, where they faced a mass trial lasting almost one year. Near its conclusion, the court dropped El Mahdaoui from this case and tried him individually on the "failing to report a security threat" charge. On June 26, the Hirak activists were convicted on charges such as "rebellion" and organizing unauthorized protests, and sentenced to up to 20 years in prison.
El Mahdaoui's prosecution was based on phone conversations on May 27 and 28, 2017 that had been obtained by the judicial police using a wiretap on his interlocutor's phone, according to court documents. El Mahdaoui's defense contended, unsuccessfully, that the court should dismiss the case on the grounds that the wiretap was illegal, since the police received the wiretap order from the prosecutor only on May 30, according to a court file document consulted by Human Rights Watch - that is after the wiretapped conversations had taken place.
In his calls, the caller introduced himself as "Noureddine," a Moroccan anti-monarchy activist based in the Netherlands, according to the court documents. In the 23-minute conversation on May 27, "Noureddine," later identified by the police as Brahim Bouazzati, said that he and others intended to smuggle weapons from Russia into Morocco and "purchase tanks" to support the Hirak movement militarily.
In court, El Mahdaoui insisted that "Noureddine" lacked credibility and his plans amounted to no more than "empty talk." El Mahdaoui said he did not find the declarations to merit news coverage, despite the caller's repeated requests in the tapped phone conversations, which were played back in court, that he report on it.
The French newspaper Le Monde reported that El Mahdaoui said about "Noureddine": "I considered him a lunatic, a liar, or someone who was trying to trick me [... ] I never took his claims seriously."
The court's reasoning for finding El Mahdaoui guilty has yet to be published. However, at no point in the trial, which Human Rights Watch attended, did the prosecution present evidence the journalist either knew the threat was serious enough to warrant alerting the authorities, or his failure to consider it as such was so negligent as to be criminal.
Under international law, the criminal law should be clear, precise, and applied in a way that any individual should reasonably be able to predict that a specific act (or omission) would amount to a crime.
El Mahdaoui, who directed the website badil.info before his imprisonment prompted its closure, became popular in Morocco through social media videos featuring his political and social commentary, and interviews of public figures. He had previously been convicted for disseminating "false news" in cases involving the then-minister of justice, a governor, and the head of the national police. In the first two cases, the court sentenced El Mahdaoui to suspended prison terms. The third case was settled after the plaintiff dropped the charges.
"By sentencing El Mahdaoui to three years over simply not reporting wild threats, Morocco's authorities are sending a chilling message to the remaining independent journalists in the country that the authorities can use any excuse to bring charges against them," Whitson said.