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Journalists Get Harsh Court Sentences in Morocco

A Moroccan court sentenced a journalist to eight months in prison on Wednesday and gave a suspended six-month sentence to his boss for publishing intelligence information warning of terrorist attacks by al-Qaida. Leslie Boctor has more from our Middle East Bureau in Cairo.

The two journalists from the weekly newspaper Al Watan Al An, Mustafa Hormatallah and publisher Abderrahim Ariri were convicted by a criminal court in Casablanca for "concealing items derived from a crime."

The court also fined each the equivalent of $120 for publishing an article in July on the heightened state of security in Morocco, based on leaked military documents. Following the verdict, Ariri said they would appeal the decision.

The verdicts are the first prison term for a Moroccan journalist in four years, and were immediately condemned by other Moroccan journalists.

The secretary general of the Moroccan Press Syndicate, Younes Moujahid, called the verdict "unacceptable" and a "threat to all journalists"

The president of the Morocco's association of press editors, Abdelmounaim Dilami, says the two journalists were expecting an acquittal. He described the sentence as harsh.

He said he did not expect the sentence to be that severe because in reality the prosecution's evidence was questionable. He said, in his opinion, these accusations are not logical or sensible.

Human rights groups monitoring the trial reported that the only evidence brought forth by the prosecution was the publication of the newspaper story. Dilami says he expects the verdict will be overturned by an appeals court.

Al Watan Al An is frequently critical of the Moroccan authorities. In March, the paper published a story that criticized the king for failing to cooperate with the Moroccan press.

Morocco's press is considered to be one of the freest in the Arab world, but recent crack-downs on independent publications have raised concerns that press freedoms are sliding backwards.

The Committee on the Protection of Journalists reports that since 2005, at least five Moroccan journalists have been hit with hefty fines related to defamation charges and one was banned from practicing journalism altogether.

Last week, Moroccan authorities seized the current affairs magazine Tel Quel and its sister publication Nichance. The editor was charged with disrespecting Morocco's King Mohammed in an editorial. The court case is scheduled for next week.

The last time a journalist was sentenced to a prison was for a similar offense of insulting the monarchy in June 2003.