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Morocco cracks down on critics and journalists

Western Sahara activist on hunger strike highlights new wave of repression.

Prominent Western Sahara independence campaigner Aminatou Haidar continues her hunger strike at the Lanzarote airport in Spain's Canary Islands, Dec. 3, 2009. Haidar, from the disputed territory of Western Sahara, has been on a hunger strike since Nov. 15 after she had her passport taken away. (Borja Suarez/Reuters)

RABAT, Morocco — Travelers passing through a small Canary Islands airport this week may have met a slight woman in a pink headscarf who says she’s starving herself to death.

Her name is Aminatou Haidar. The 42-year-old activist was expelled from Morocco on Nov. 13, on her way home from winning a prestigious international human rights award in New York City.

The Moroccan government says Haidar — who advocates independence for Morocco’s disputed Western Sahara territory — made a spectacle of renouncing her Moroccan citizenship upon arriving home. Speaking by phone from the island of Lanzarote, Haidar insisted this isn’t so. She said she’s been illegally deported and vowed to fast until Morocco lets her return, or “until death.”

At first, the row might seem like another grim chapter in one of Africa’s longest-running territorial feuds. But longtime Morocco observers say Haidar’s expulsion underscores a trend of rising repression as the Moroccan government has increasingly cracked down on dissidents and journalists in the last six months.

Even as U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spent her recent visit here praising Morocco’s democratic gains, some human rights groups are saying it’s time to rethink Morocco’s reputation as the grand exception among repressive Arab states.

“Beyond the facade of openness there are serious problems,” said Abdeslam Maghraoui, a political scientist and Morocco specialist at Duke University. “During the past six months we’ve seen a real deterioration.”

In recent weeks, police in the disputed Western Sahara region have begun breaking up interviews between foreign journalists and activists who want a referendum on independence.

This follows a series of moves punishing the press for publishing stories Moroccan authorities found objectionable. “There has been an escalation and it’s on an unprecedented scale,” said Ahmed Ben Chemsi, the editor of the Moroccan newsweekly Tel Quel. “It’s happening to too many newspapers at the same time to think that it’s a coincidence.”

In October, newspaper publisher Driss Chahtane, of the Arabic-language newspaper Al-Michaal, was handed a year-long prison sentence for running an article about the king’s health. The two journalists who wrote the piece, Rachid Mahamid and Mustapha Hayrane, were fined and given sentences of three months each.

For publishing an item on the same bit of news — an unnamed medical source claimed the king was recovering from a stomach virus — Ali Anouzla, the editor of the daily Al-Jarida Al-Oula, received a one-year suspended jail sentence.

In September, authorities closed down another Arabic-language paper, Akhbar al-Youm, for publishing a cartoon depicting the king’s cousin.

In August, authorities seized and destroyed the entire print run of the country’s premier news magazine, Tel Quel, for daring to publish results of a survey on the king’s popularity. In that apparently controversial poll, a whopping 91 percent of Moroccans said they approved of the king.

Morocco’s communication minister Khalid Naciri rejected any notion the government has adopted a newly combative attitude toward the press, saying the recent prosecutions targeted a small minority who’d broken laws requiring journalists to show “due respect” for royalty.

“What is forbidden here is what is forbidden in all democratic countries — insults, defamation and lies,” Naciri said. “The reality is that there are hundreds of newspapers in Morocco that express themselves freely.”

International observers disagree.

“There is no doubt that this year has been among the worst periods for independent media in Morocco,” said Mohamed Abdel Dayem, the Middle East and North Africa coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists in New York City. Dayem says the press crackdowns reflect the government’s increasing disregard for human rights. “Morocco at a certain point of time was on a very promising trajectory,” he said. “But I think they’ve failed to follow through on those reforms.”