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Environmental journalist sentenced to two years in prison for exposing illegal cedar trafficking ring

(RSF/IFEX) - Mohammed Attaoui, a correspondent for the Arabic daily "Al-Monataf", president of a local environmental NGO and an employee with the rural municipality of Tounfite, was sentenced on 22 March 2010 to two years in prison by a court in Midelt, in the eastern Atlas region, southeast of Rabat. He was officially charged with extorting 1,000 dirhams (approx. 90 euros), though his arrest appears to be part of a set up, says RSF.

Attaoui began a hunger strike on 29 March to protest the sentence and demand a fair trial. He is also calling for an investigation into what he calls his "kidnapping" by national guard officers.

Attaoui was arrested on 8 March, shortly after an article he wrote exposing a "cedar mafia" was published in the Arabic-language daily "Al-Monataf" on 16 February. A press release issued by his organisation on 16 January also denounced the illegal trafficking of the wood. The organisation has launched a civil suit against the leaders of the groups named by Attaoui in his exposés.

Attaoui's organisation, the Association for the Preservation of Cedar and Bighorn Sheep, was founded in 2006. The organisation holds seminars and issues press releases "to expose and educate the public about the plundering of our rich cedar resources," Attaoui told RSF from his prison in Midelt.

In his recent articles, the journalist and activist describes in great detail the illegal trafficking of the heritage wood by community leaders in the Midelt region, aided by national forest rangers. Cedar wood is a protected species in Morocco.

Attaoui maintains he was set up by a forestry ministry official who tipped him off to the trafficking. "I mentioned to him that I was in a difficult financial situation and that I did not know if I would be able to afford to travel to Rabat or Meknès for an oral exam I needed to take as part of a promotion I was applying for within the municipality. He gave me 1,000 dirhams to pay for the ticket. Two hours later, national guard officers came to arrest me."

Attaoui says he intends to appeal his conviction. He is scheduled to be transferred to Meknès prison on either the 1st or 5th of April. He will be informed of the date of his appeal once he is transferred.

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