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Morocco pardons journalist to create smokescreen

Driss Chahtan holds his daughter while being taken to prison. He was released a day before his wife had their second child. (Abdelwahid Mahir)

On Friday evening, after receiving an unexpected royal pardon, Driss Chahtan, the editor of the independent weekly Al-Michaal, was released from Oukacha Prison in Casablanca. However, his release is one of the few positive developments amid many alarming cases of worsening press conditions in Morocco.

Chahtan was sentenced in October 2009 to one year in prison after publishing articles about the health of Moroccan King Mohammed VI; royal health is taboo in Morocco. The articles posed questions about the seriousness of the king's condition after the palace issued a public statement saying that Mohammed VI was suffering from a minor infection.

Chahtan was released one day before his wife, Sihem, gave a birth to their second child. "My joy is indescribable because my second child was born hours after my release; this made me forget the tragic and harsh jail conditions," Chahtan told CPJ. "I am proud of CPJ's friendship and solidarity and efforts to end eight months of unfair imprisonment."

Royal pardons in Morocco are usually granted on political and religious occasions and usually involve more than one prisoner. However, Chahtan's pardon occurred amid rising persecution of independent journalists with charges against them seemingly unrelated to journalism. We’ve seen that often such charges are politicized and meant to silence a critical voice.

Taoufik Bouachrine, editor of the independent newspaper Akhbar al-Youm, told CPJ he believes that there is a political motive behind Chahtan's pardon, saying it “came about in order to obscure other issues related to the way journalists are treated in Morocco.” Bouachrine pointed out that the Moroccan authorities are sending a “contradictory signal”: “The day before Chahtan's pardon was issued,” he said, “I was sentenced to six months in prison.” We reported on Friday sentencing of Bouachrine to six months on charges of real estate and sales fraud.

His case is not the only case in which a journalist is facing criminal charges. Among others, Ali Amar, former editor of the weekly Le Journal and the author of a critical book on the king, was charged last week with stealing a computer. His case was postponed to June 22.

After his release, Chahtan, in an interview for Akhbar al-Youm published Monday, said that he does not foresee that the current tension between the Moroccan government and journalists will ease any time soon, “especially since the government did not show signs of good intentions,’ on the contrary to journalists, who did.” "It is not reasonable that in Morocco, in the 21st century, a journalist is imprisoned because of his writing or his work," he added.

June 16, 2010 10:15 AM ET |

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