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What Will President Obama Whisper in This King's Ear?

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Co-authored with David Stamps and Jihane Bergaoui of Amnesty International USA

Today, Morocco's King Mohamed VI will shake hands with President Barack Obama at the White House. The event isn't expected to generate headlines, simply because Morocco is widely thought of as a rare haven of stability in a troubled region. But behind that façade is the reality of prison doors that can slam shut for those in Morocco and Western Sahara who dare to speak their minds.

2013-11-21-ailogo_rgbcandle.jpgJust two months ago, a dozen police officers arrested leading independent editor Ali Anouzla at his home in the Moroccan capital of Rabat. The journalist, whom Amnesty International adopted as a prisoner of conscience, was charged under Morocco's anti-terrorism law and detained for over five weeks. Now released on bail, he could still face up to 20 years in prison simply for doing his job.

What did Anouzla do to merit such a crackdown? He had reported on a video released by al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. For this, he was charged with "advocating" and "assisting" terrorism. His next hearing is scheduled for December 23, just in time for the winter holidays when Western news audiences might pay less attention.

To make matters worse, Anouzla's news website Lakome was shut down as well. The site was one of the few media outlets in Morocco to cover reports of torture in custody. Under the very anti-terrorism law that Anouzla now faces, convictions are regularly tainted by interrogations under torture. That's because the law allows for extended pre-arraignment detention, without access to a lawyer or family visits. This increases the risk of ill-treatment.

It isn't just the anti-terrorism law that is a source of human rights violations. Morocco also has a Press Code, which includes prison sentences for any publications deemed to threaten "Islamic religion, the monarchic regime or territorial integrity." And that phrase "territorial integrity" is understood to include the nearby annexed region of Western Sahara, where Sahrawi people also grapple with Moroccan human rights violations.

The king's agenda does not seem to include addressing such violations, but rather, securing the blank check of U.S. support. His visiting delegation includes Minister of Communications Mustapha El Khalfi and head of the National Council for Human Rights Driss El Yazami. Their trip aims to rekindle the relationship with Washington after a more contentious interaction last April.

At that time, the U.S. had pushed for United Nations monitoring of human rights in the very territory annexed by Morocco -- parts of Western Sahara. This was to be done through the United Nations peacekeeping force MINURSO (United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara). Given the human rights violations experienced by Sahrawi people under Morocco's rule, Amnesty International and other organizations have long called for U.N. human rights monitoring in the territory, and in Sahrawi refugee camps in Tindouf in southern Algeria. Unfortunately, the U.S. backed off its demand in the face of Morocco's ire.

That's why Amnesty International is calling on President Obama to raise tough questions about human rights during his meeting with King Mohamed VI. As Morocco's strategic partner, the U.S. must ensure that its dollars, military support, and political support generate momentum for human rights. Moroccan authorities shouldn't be allowed to presume that their relationship with the U.S. is a blank check.

David Stamps and Jihane Bergaoui are North Africa country specialists for Amnesty International USA. Sunjeev Bery is the Middle East & North Africa Advocacy Director for the organization.