Late last week, the Moroccan King pardoned prisoner of conscience Chekib El-Khiari, who was serving a three year prison sentence for speaking out against government corruption.
Amnesty suspects that the charges against Check El-Khiari were politically motivated, as he had brought allegations against Moroccan officials in connection to a drug ring. Jailed since June 2009, Chekib El-Khiari was greeted by family and friends upon release.
The pardon came as part of a wider movement that commuted or shortened the sentences of 190 prisoners in Morocco, 96 of whom were reportedly released.
Such pardons are great news, and may be an indication that the movement to loosen authoritarian grip across the Middle East and North Africa has spread to Morocco. The Moroccan authorities have been under pressure to respond to demands for political and human rights reform, following continuing demonstrations since 20 February inspired by the events in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. On 3 March 2011 the authorities announced a new National Human Rights Council, which called for the release of Chekib El-Khiari. On 9 March 2011, King Mohamed announced a plan of constitutional reform, and the devolving of some of his political power.
This news is welcome, but more needs to be done. Despite the pardoning of a number of prisoners, seven Sahrawi activists still face possible trial in Morocco. These activists were arrested in October 2009 on charges of threatening Morocco’s “internal security” in connection with their peaceful and legitimate activities in support of the self-determination of Western Sahara. Though four of them were released earlier, the final three only just left prison following last week’s royal pardon after 18 months of detention.
We can make the difference! Amnesty believes that the work of local Amnesty USA groups, such as Group 48 in Portland, Oregon, helped achieve Chekib El-Khiari’s release. Led by case coordinators Jane Kristof and Marty Fromer, members of Group 48 sent hundreds of postcards to the Moroccan ambassador and King of Morocco, as well as petitions to the King, Prime Minister, Minister of Justice, and Minister of Foreign Affairs. They also partnered with the Never Again Coalition’s Postcard Brigade, allowing them to mobilize new activists.
The case coordinators also sought help from their member of Congress that resulted in a letter from the Congressman to the Moroccan ambassador inquiring about the El-Khiari’s case. Through their tireless and devout work, along with many other Amnesty activists united across the world, Moroccan authorities heard the international demand for respect for human rights.
But the status of the Sahrawi activists reminds us that our work is not over. We need to continue to urge Moroccan authorities to continue to show a commitment to human rights.
Sarah Bibler, Campaign for Individuals at Risk, contributed to this post.