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Ali Anouzla still in jail as government blocks Lakome

Moroccan editor Ali Anouzla's arrest on September 17 in connection with an article published on his website has prompted an unprecedented wave of regional and international solidarity with a jailed Arab journalist. 

He appeared on Tuesday before an investigating judge in Rabat. The courts examines "terrorism cases," Khadija Riadi, former president of the Moroccan Association for Human Rights and coordinator of the National Committee to Free Anouzla, told me. The judge postponed the hearing to October 30, according to Riadi, and is considering a request to temporarily release Anouzla, according to news reports.

The calls for his release intensified inside Morocco and internationally precisely because of the government's absurd decision to use the country's draconian 2003 anti-terrorism law to charge Anouzla, a brave and highly respected Arab journalist. He is standing trial for "advocacy of acts amounting to terrorism offenses" and providing assistance to perpetrators or accomplices of acts of terrorism," according to news report and human rights groups.

The two charges carry sentences of up to six years and 20 years' imprisonment respectively, according to Amnesty international, which has adopted Anouzla as a "prisoner of conscience." They stem from an article critical of terrorists he posted on his Arabic news site Lakome that referred to a video released by Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. A link to the video titled "Morocco: Kingdom of Corruption and Despotism" came from the website of Spain's leading daily newspaper El Pais.

The London-based human rights group expressed its deep concern that Moroccan authorities failed to make a distinction "between the right to freedom of expression on the one hand, and incitement to terrorism ... on the other hand," and would send the message that "any discussion of terrorism, including criticism of counter-terrorism strategies, will be treated by the government of Morocco as a criminal offence".

A survey by Lakome showed that 87.7 percent of those responding believe Anouzla's detention is not solely due to publishing an article carrying a link to a video of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, but also because of Lakome's editorial positions.

In 2009, after his independent daily Al-Jarida al-Oula lost revenue from advertisers pressured by the government and he was forced to close it down and move online, he told CPJ that his editorials brought on his financial difficulties. "I believe that after what happened to Le Journal Hebdomadaire, there is only room left for privately owned and partisan newspapers tolerated by the authorities," he said at the time. "The option for us is to move online."

When we met less than a week before his recent arrest, Anouzla was fully aware that the price of critical journalism has continued to rise since King Mohamed VI ascended the throne in 1999 and became increasingly less tolerant of dissent than his father, the late King Hassan II. Back then, the young monarch raised hopes Morocco might become a Spanish-style constitutional democracy. Instead, by 2007, Morocco joined the Committee to Protect Journalists' list of the 10 countries where press freedom had most deteriorated.

Anouzla's case is not an exception. He is the latest of a number of elite Moroccan journalists who believe freedom of expression is one of the pillars of democratization and have been shamelessly silenced or forced into exile over the past decade. They include Ali Lmrabet,   Driss Ksikes, Ahmed Benchemsi and Aboubakr Jamai. The latest, Jamai, received CPJ's International Press Freedom Award in 2003. He is currently managing the French edition of Lakome from his exile in Germany and, since Anouzla's arrest, the Arabic edition as well.

Jamai unexpectedly returned this week to Morocco.

He shed light at a press conference on Tuesday in Rabat organized by the National Committee to Free Anouzla on developments in Anouzla's case and about his participation in a campaign outside the country to raise awareness about Anouzla's plight.

Jamai said in the press conference that the Arabic and French editions of the news site Lakome recently vanished from the Web. The Moroccan government claimed blocking access to the website from inside Morocco was at Anouzla's request. But Jamai told CPJ that Anouzla doesn't own the website or his domain and he is not legally responsible for the website, especially the French edition.  "Even when I created another domain, Lakome.info, it was also censored inside Morocco, which is an added proof that their aim is to shut down Lakome and they are hiding behind Anouzla's situation to do so," Jamai said.

Alarmingly, on the eve of the press conference, four prominent lawyers, including Abderrahman Benamrou and Abderrahim Jamai unexpectedly announced  their decision to withdraw from the committee they formed more than a month ago to defend Anouzla. "We will, however, keep standing up for the right to freedom of opinion, expression and of the press and calling for the release of Mr. Ali Anouzla and for the need to drop the charges against him," they said. They said their decision was mainly spurred by the appointment of a new lawyer to Anouzla's defense team without consulting them. The new lawyer, Hassan Semlali, was present during Anouzla's first court appearance on Tuesday, Anouzla's former lawyers told me.

Anouzla's detention follows a series of critical articles about the king's excessive prerogatives, lack of accountability, and lengthy and mysterious absences from Morocco. Anouzla's case "may signal the end of any hope of change in Morocco as the regime seems bent on getting revenge on its toughest opponents" and "using the terrorism law as an excuse to keep public opinion on its side," writes Moroccan political analyst and historian Maati Monjib. It also puts the king's credibility as a reformer to the test, according to foreign observers.

But it also raises this important question: can any autocratic ruler in the region take the risk today of refusing to learn from the costly mistakes of other Arab autocrats, particularly Hosni Mubarak of Egypt and Zine El Abidine Ben Ali of Tunisia, overthrown in part because of their attacks on freedom of expression and independent journalism?

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