محمد عطاوي

Mohamed Attaoui, a Moroccan political detainee and environmental activist, has gone on hunger strike to protest the lack of a decision in a fabricated case. 

Attaoui, a member of the National Authority for the Protection of Public Funds, has been detained at the local prison of Midelt in eastern Morocco since 8 December 2023 amid charges of insulting public officials in what he says is a trumped-up case. He is on hunger strike and demands that his case be examined, decided and immediately released. 

Alkarama takes the case to the UN 

On 22 August 2023, Alkarama addressed the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and the Environment regarding the case of Mohamed Attaoui, a human rights and environmental activist, who was the victim of reprisals and intimidation by local authorities in the Middle Atlas region for denouncing the smuggling of cedars in rural communities in the region. 

Denunciation of cedar wood smuggling 

Originally from the commune of Tounfit, Attaoui, who worked as a technician for local authorities, is president of the association "Avenir pour le cèdre et le Mouflon". Since its creation in 2006, it has been fighting for the preservation of the Atlas cedar forest (south-east of Morocco), a national forest heritage covering thousands of hectares and threatened with extinction due to illegal logging. 

This unbridled exploitation, which 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 in the governorate of Midelt, where a large part of the cedar forest has been destroyed, have not stopped denouncing this environmental massacre that they experience on a daily basis. 

On the night of 11-12 February 2010, several trucks, each carrying dozens of cedar woods, drove through their community in plain sight. Faced with the protests expressed by the inhabitants, the Gendarmerie of Tounfit finally decided to arrest only one of these trucks and to draw up a report to refer the driver to the Public Prosecutor. 

In an article dated 16 February 2010 in the local newspaper "Al Monataf", Attaoui recounted these events, denouncing the silence of the local authorities and those he described as the "cedar mafia".  At the same time, his association "Avenir pour le cèdre et le mouflon" published a report on the environmental consequences of this traffic and filed a civil suit in the prosecution of the truck driver arrested a few days earlier. 

Attaoui's arrest 

On 8 March 2010, twenty days after the publication of his article and three days before the trial during which Attaoui was to represent his association, he was arrested without a warrant on the public highway by several gendarmes. Beaten and handcuffed behind his back, Attaoui was charged with possession of drugs and taken directly to the Tounfit brigade before being illegally transferred in a civilian car to the Midelt police station, 90 kilometres away. He was arrested and was not allowed to communicate with his family and his lawyer, who was only able to visit him on 12 March 2010. In addition, none of the police stations in Tounfit and Midelt acknowledged his detention when his wife tried to contact him. 

At the end of his police custody, he was forced to affix his fingerprints to a retrospective report from the gendarmerie indicating that the arrest had taken place in Midelt the previous day at around 7 p.m. The next day, when he appeared before the prosecutor, he was surprised to discover that he was facing other charges, including "insulting the king", "forgery", "extortion" and "fraud", although he had initially been arrested on the pretext of drug possession. 

Before the prosecutor, Attaoui tried in vain to explain the real reasons for his arrest by stating that he had been forced to sign the report with his fingerprints. Attaoui appeared before the Midelt Court of First Instance on March 19, 2010 and was sentenced to two years' imprisonment and 20,000 dirhams in compensation for allegedly extorting 1,000 dirhams (90 euros) from a colleague who had been forced to testify against him. Following an appeal on 13 June 2010 and after several postponements of hearings, his sentence was reduced to one year in prison and 10,000 dirhams in compensation. 

During his incarceration, Attaoui was tortured several times. In particular, he was beaten by several prison officers with a rubber hose on various parts of his body, and remained in difficult positions for several hours, blindfolded, hanging from the ceiling by his feet. 

Suspension and Reconviction 

After serving his full sentence, Attaoui did not return to office and was only officially suspended on September 1, 2012, on the orders of the president of the Tounfit region. With no job or resources to support his family, Attaoui continued his campaign, denouncing cedar wood smuggling and the silence of local authorities. It was for this reason that he was summoned by the Attorney General on 21 January 2013, this time with the intention of prosecuting him for "identity theft" even though he was not performing any office at the time. 

He appeared before the investigating judge, was again detained under an arrest warrant and, on 14 February 2013, was sentenced to an additional ten months in prison for "exercising a public function without authorisation" under Article 262 of the Criminal Code, after his movements in the forest were deemed illegal. 

During the retrial, Attaoui attempted to argue that he had been subjected to reprisals and suspended from duty because of his denunciation of local cedar smuggling. Despite producing videos and  photos in court in which he raised public awareness of the extent of the damage to the cedar forest, the judge refused to hear the defense's arguments and hear witnesses. 

During his second prison sentence, Attaoui was constantly held in extremely harsh conditions and deprived of any contact with the outside world except his family. After his case was submitted to the UN and several NGOs denounced the authorities' practices against him, he was denied any contact with these NGOs. 

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 are interdependent. 

According to this interdependence, a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment is essential for the full enjoyment of a range of human rights, and vice versa, the enjoyment of human rights is indispensable for the protection of the environment. In its complaint, Alkarama stated that the violations suffered by Attaoui contravene Morocco's human rights obligations related to the enjoyment of a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment. 

By subjecting Attaoui to criminal and administrative prosecution, Morocco has violated its human rights obligations, such as freedom of expression, in the field of the environment and has failed in its duty to protect. 

Alkarama noted that the disproportionate nature of the sentence imposed on Attaoui for allegedly extorting a small sum from a colleague actually reflects the Moroccan authorities' desire to punish him for denouncing the cedar trade. 

In this case, Attaoui was arrested in retaliation for the peaceful exercise of his rights to freedom of expression and association under 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.