The King's Belated Clemency

It took a while before he could bring himself to do so, but Morocco's King Mohammed VI has now released Ali Lmrabet. The dissident journalist had originally been sentenced to a lengthy prison term for the alleged crime of lèse-majesté. Martina Sabra reports

on a Moroccan maverick.

photo: Reporters Without Borders
Months behind bars - Ali Lmrabet

​​It was a case that aroused international protest: last summer, Ali Lmrabet - publisher of the satirical weeklies "Demain" (French) and "Duman" (Arabic) – was sentenced to four years imprisonment for "insulting the persona of the King, the monarchical regime and the territorial integrity of Morocco". He was taken straight from the courtroom to his jail cell. Almost simultaneously, the journalist Mohamed El-Hurd, from the newspaper "Al-Sharq" in Oujda, was handed down a three-year sentence, for publishing an interview with an Islamist. And as if that weren't enough, three other journalists received jail terms ranging from 18 months to two years.

Vigorous protests from international human-rights organisations, such as Amnesty International and the German section of Reporters Without Borders, eventually bore fruit: the Moroccan King, Mohammed VI, has now issued a reprieve to Ali Lmrabet, Mohammed El-Hourd and five further media workers whose appeals were still being heard.

"The powerful have no sense of humour!"

But what were the reasons for the arrest of Ali Lmrabet, last year's winner of the Reporters Without Borders Human Rights Award? Well, amongst other sins, the 44-year-old satirist had dared to publish criticisms of Morocco's feudal monarchy and of the country's policies in the Western Sahara. As a consequence, he was sentenced to four years imprisonment and fined around 2,000 euros. His satirical weeklies "Demain" and "Duman" were also banned. "The powerful in Morocco don't accept satire, because they have no sense of humour", says Lmrabet. "You can't make jokes about the King. But that's the price that has to be paid if you want a real democracy!"

His conviction was greeted by vehement protests in Spain and France, and Ali Lmrabet embarked on a hunger strike that eventually lasted 50 days. Four weeks into his strike, the judges in Rabat reduced Lmrabet's prison term to three years on appeal.

Gloomy prospects for press freedom in Morocco

Yet despite the recent official pardons, the signals being sent to the Moroccan media remain as clear as ever. For years now, the country's rulers have been trying to intimidate or silence the independent press, with fines, jail sentences and publication bans.

In May last year, press freedom was restricted in the name of the so-called anti-terror laws. And after the bomb attacks in Casablanca, the government announced that its "easy-going attitude" to the critical media was at an end: too much democracy, it was suggested, would damage the country.

Many journalists were arrested, and Lmrabet was hit hardest of all. But as he explains, he wanted to resist being cowed into submission: "We journalists are accused of being subversive. Yet most Moroccan newspapers - and those who produce them - are utterly discredited, because they're in league with the political elites. By contrast, we enjoy some credibility. The powers-that-be are scared that we might question the role of the Moroccan monarchy. But why shouldn't we? It has to happen someday!"

An affront to Morocco's King: a caricature à la Lmrabet

An affront to Morocco's King: a caricature à la Lmrabet

​​The particularly hard crackdown on Ali Lmrabet may also have had something to do with his political connections. Lmrabet - who grew up in the poor north of Morocco and eventually entered the diplomatic service on his merits alone - is a friend of Moulay Hisham, a cousin of King Mohammed VI.

Shortly before Lmrabet's arrest, Hisham (known as "The Red Prince") had voiced fierce criticism of the King's regime - and he had done so in public, angering the monarch.

The hunger strike as an instrument of protest

Moulay Hisham now lives in exile in the US. There, he writes highly-respected articles on reforms in the Arab world, for publications including Le Monde Diplomatique. And it was Moulay Hisham who persuaded Ali Lmrabetm to abandon his hunger strike last July. At that point, Lmrabet was on the verge of falling into a coma - and he still has problems with his health: he cannot move his hands or his feet properly, and he can see only poorly with his right eye.

Lmrabet was refused any medical attention whilst in prison. Instead, the journalist was systematically isolated; if any of his fellow prisoners attempted to speak to him, they were shifted. His cell was surrounded with three separate devices that made it impossible for him to use a mobile phone. Post and newspapers reached him very late, if at all.

On the 30th of November, therefore, Ali Lmrabet resumed his hunger strike – together with his colleague Mohamed El-Hurd. For Lmrabet, it was the only logical step he could take: "I think one has to suffer to achieve freedom of speech. And when one looks back in history, the critical spirits have always won out in the end."

Martina Sabra © 2004
Translation from German: Patrick Lanagan

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