RABAT (Reuters) – A Moroccan court on Wednesday jailed a human rights activist and outspoken critic of government anti-drugs policy for offending the authorities and making unauthorised currency transactions.
Chakib El Khayari was given three years in prison and ordered to pay 753,930 dirhams to Moroccan customs, official news agency MAP reported.
The Casablanca criminal court of first instance said Khayari deposited money in foreign banks without the authorisation of Morocco’s Exchange Office.
“The accused is also suspected of taking sums of money from foreign parties for leading a media campaign aimed at damaging and discrediting efforts deployed by the Moroccan authorities in the fight against drug trafficking,” said MAP.
He was charged on February 21 and was held in prison pending his trial.
Khayari is from Nador in Morocco’s northern Rif mountain region, where cannabis remains a lifeline for poor farming families and a source of wealth for drug trafficking gangs.
New York based Human Rights Watch said Khayari made numerous statements to foreign media and at conferences in which he questioned the government’s diligence in suppressing the smuggling of illegal drugs from northern Morocco to Europe.
“We are very disappointed by this verdict. It is meant to have a chilling effect on other whistleblowers and rights campaigners in the Rif region,” said Eric Goldstein, Human Rights Watch research director for the Middle East and North Africa.
The government says the drug trade declined last year as police broke up trafficking gangs and encouraged farmers to shift to alternative cultures.
The area of cannabis under cultivation fell to 60,000 hectares in 2008 from 134,000 in 2003, according to official figures. The government expects it to fall to 50,000 hectares in 2009.
Prosecutors said Khayari, who is head of the Rif Human Rights Association (ARDH), took a bribe to focus his media campaign against drug traffickers from Nador and to ignore the cannabis trade around Ketama further west.
Khayari’s lawyers intended to appeal against the court’s verdict, said Goldstein.