Morocco: The Case of Mohamed Attaoui, Environmental Activist, Submitted to the Special Rapporteur on the Right to the Environment

Cédraie MAROC

On 22 August 2023, Alkarama addressed the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the right to the environment regarding the case of Mr. Mohamed ATTAOUI, a committed human rights activist and environmentalist, victim of reprisals and acts of intimidation by the local and regional authorities of Midelt (Middle Atlas) since he denounced the smuggling of cedar wood in rural communes of the region. 

Denunciation of cedar timber smuggling 

Originally from the commune of Tounfite, Mr. ATTAOUI, technician of local authorities, chair of the Association "Avenir pour le cèdre et le mouflon" since its creation in 2006, and fights to preserve the cedar forest of the Atlas (south-east Morocco), national forest heritage extending over thousands of hectares and threatened with extinction due to illegal logging. 

This unbridled exploitation that Mr. ATTAOUI has witnessed for many years is regularly denounced by the local population. The inhabitants of the commune of Sidi Yahya Ou Youssef, a village located in the province of Midelt, where a large part of the cedar forest has been destroyed, have constantly denounced this ecological massacre that they live on a daily basis. 

On the night of February 11 to 12, 2010, several trucks, each carrying several dozen cubicle cedar wood, crossed their commune in full view of all. Faced with the protests expressed by the inhabitants, the gendarmerie of Tounfite finally decided to arrest only one of these trucks and drew up a report to refer the driver to the prosecutor of the king. 

In an article dated 16 February 2010 in the local daily "Al Monataf", Mr. ATTAOUI reported these facts by denouncing those he described as the "cedar mafia" and the silence of the local authorities. In parallel, his association, "Avenir pour le cèdre et le mouflon", published a report on the ecological consequences of this trafficking and expressed its willingness to become a civil party in the trial of the truck driver arrested a few days earlier. 

Arrest of Mr ATTAOUI 

On 8 March 2010, twenty days after the publication of his article and three days before the trial during which Mr. ATTAOUI was to represent his association, he was arrested without a warrant of justice on the public highway by several gendarmes. 

Brutalized and handcuffed with his hands behind his back, Mr. ATTAOUI was accused of possessing drugs and was taken directly to the Tounfite brigade before being taken illegally in a civilian vehicle to the Midelt police station, 90 km away. He was taken into custody and denied access to his family and his lawyer was only able to visit him on 12 March 2010. Moreover, none of the police stations in Tounfite and Midelt acknowledged his detention when his wife tried to see him. At the end of his police custody, he was forced to affix his fingerprint on a backdated report of the gendarmerie according to which the arrest had taken place in Midelt the day before at around 7 p.m. 

The next day, during his presentation before the king's prosecutor, he was stunned to discover that he was actually accused of "insulting the king", "forgery", "extortion" and "fraud" even though he had initially been arrested on the pretext of possession of narcotics. 

Before the Crown Prosecutor, Mr. ATTAOUI tried in vain to explain the real reasons for his arrest by specifying that he had been forced to sign the report by affixing his imprint. Brought before the Court of First Instance of Midelt on 19 March 2010, Mr. ATTAOUI was sentenced to two years in prison and 20,000 dirhams in damages for allegedly extorting 1,000 dirhams (90 euros) from his co-worker forced to testify against him. 

After appealing this decision on 13 June 2010, after several postponements of hearings, his sentence was reduced to one year in prison and 10,000 dirhams in damages. 

During his period of imprisonment, Mr. ATTAOUI was repeatedly tortured. In particular, he was beaten by several prison officers with a rubber hose on different parts of his body, was kept in extreme positions for several hours blindfolded, and hung from the ceiling by his feet. 

Suspension of office and reconviction 

After serving his full sentence, Mr. ATTAOUI was not reinstated in his duties and it was only on 1 September 2012 that he was officially suspended, by order of the president of the locality of Tounfite, from his duties as a technician. Without a job or resources to support his family, Mr. ATTAOUI nevertheless continued to campaign and publicly denounce the smuggling of cedar wood and the silence of the local authorities. 

This is why, on 21 January 2013, he was summoned by the Crown Prosecutor, who this time intended to prosecute him for "usurpation of office" even though he was not exercising any function at the time. Brought before the investigating judge, he was again placed under arrest warrant, and on 14 February 2013, he was sentenced to another ten months in prison for "exercising a public function without being authorized" on the basis of article 262 of the Criminal Code, the court having considered his movements in the forest as illegal. 

During this retrial, Mr. ATTAOUI tried to argue that he was the subject of reprisals and that he was suspended from his duties because of his denunciations of attacks on the local cedar forest. He handed over videos and photos to the court to raise awareness about the extent of damage to the cedar forest. Despite the defense’s arguments, however, the judge refused to hear witnesses and examine videos and recordings demonstrating serious damage to the local cedar grove. 

During his second period of imprisonment, Mr. ATTAOUI was constantly kept in particularly difficult conditions and was banned from any contact with the outside world, except for his family. 

His case having been publicized and his situation denounced by several NGOs, he was then banned from any contact with these NGOs on pain of being taken to the dungeon. 

The Special Rapporteur seized of the case 

In his first report to the Human Rights Council, the Special Rapporteur on human rights and the environment stressed that human rights and the environment were interdependent. According to this interdependence, a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment is necessary for the full enjoyment of a range of human rights and, conversely, the enjoyment of human rights is indispensable for the protection of the environment. 

In its complaint, Alkarama demonstrated that the violations suffered by Mr. ATTAOUI are in contravention of Morocco's human rights obligations relating to the means of enjoying a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment. 

By exposing Mr. ATTAOUI to criminal and administrative proceedings even though it was Morocco's duty to comply fully with its human rights obligations, such as freedom of expression, which was exercised in the field of the environment, the State had failed in its duty to protect. 

Alkarama pointed out that the disproportionate nature of the sentence to which Mr. ATTAOUI was sentenced for allegedly extracting from a colleague an insignificant sum in fact reflects the desire of the Moroccan authorities to punish him for speaking out publicly about the trafficking of cedar wood. 

In the present case, Mr. ATTAOUI was arrested in retaliation for peacefully exercising his right to freedom of expression and his right of association guaranteed by articles 19 and 20 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and articles 19 and 22 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. 

The Moroccan State had not only failed in its duty to ensure that Mr. ATTAOUI's rights were protected, but had also paved the way for violations against him by resorting to such reprisals in response to the exercise of his rights. By failing to open a prompt and impartial investigation into the violations suffered by Mr. ATTAOUI, the Moroccan State also deprived him of his right to an effective remedy. 

For these reasons, Alkarama called on the Special Rapporteur on the right to the environment to urge Morocco to put an end to all forms of reprisals against Mr. ATTAOUI because of his activities as an environmental defender, to reinstate him in all his rights as a public servant, to initiate a prompt and impartial investigation into the violations to which he had been subjected and to punish the perpetrators. 

Alkarama also invited the Special Rapporteur to call on the Moroccan authorities to take urgent measures to effectively combat any cedar wood trafficking and thus protect Morocco's cedar grove while setting a definitive date for the visit accepted on 14 April 2021 and which has remained pending since, including a visit by the Moroccan cedar forest to the Midelt region.