Moroccan activist jailed over report of riot deaths

RABAT, July 10 (Reuters) - A Moroccan rights activist was jailed on Thursday for telling journalists that security forces had killed and raped protesters during riots in a southern town last month, accusations the government strenuously denied.

Brahim Sbaalil, a leading member of the Moroccan Human Rights Centre (CMDH), said the authorities committed crimes against humanity when they broke up a protest over poverty and joblessness by youths in the port of Sidi Ifni on June 7.

The government said no one died in the disturbances but that 48 people were injured, including 28 police, and 188 arrested.

Police arrested Sbaalil after a news conference at which he spoke of "deaths, cases of disappearances and rapes" during the clashes in the port town 700 km (435 miles) southwest of Rabat, the authorities said.

He was sentenced to six months in prison and handed a 1,000 dirham ($137) fine for "outraging the public authorities by claiming the existence of fictitious crimes".

Rights campaigners and journalists packed into the Rabat court of first instance to hear the verdict, which defence lawyers said they would appeal.

The Rabat bureau chief of Arabic satellite news channel Al Jazeera, which carried the reports of deaths in Sidi Ifni, was charged on June 13 under Morocco's press code with publishing false information and had his press card removed.

Hassan Rachidi said the Qatari-based channel's reports gave prominence to the official denials of any deaths.

Press freedom campaigners said the charges against Rachidi are excessive and highlight Moroccan government hostility to Al Jazeera and its staff. His sentence is still pending.

Tension lingered over Sidi Ifni for several days after the riots, with residents complaining of brutal police tactics. Some witnesses who reported relatives missing later found they were under arrest.

Communications Minister Khalid Naciri said the government had a moral duty to remove the protesters who were blocking the port, the town's economic lifeline, and restore order. He said any abuses, if proven, would be severely punished.

A parliamentary commission created to examine the events in Sidi Ifni is yet to report its findings. (Reporting by Zakia Abdennebi; Writing by Tom Pfeiffer)