A royal pardon has freed a Moroccan computer engineer after he was arrested for creating a Facebook account of Prince Moulay Rachid. Fouad Moutada was sentenced to three years in prison and given a 10,000 dirham ($1,370) fine o

n February 23, 2008 after creating a Facebook profile of King Mohammed VI’s younger brother.

Under strict Moroccan law, any voice of scrutiny against the royal family can be prosecuted.

Moutada claimed that he created the account out of fun and admiration for the prince, and that he had no malicious intent. His lawyer, Ali Ammar, and thousands of supporters defended him by saying that many celebrity profiles are created on Facebook and other social networking sites, and that Moutada’s incident was just as harmless as those.

The arrest and sentencing drew the scrutiny of the Moroccan blogosphere as well as free speech supporters around the world. Thousands of Internet groups protested, and Moroccan bloggers even stopped writing in solidarity to the computer engineer.

The pardon, one of 566 by the Moroccan king, was granted as part of a tradition of announcing pardons on the anniversary of the birthday of the Prophet Mohammed.

It also shows the effort of the Moroccan political sphere to highlight the social progress it has made since King Mohammed VI took power in 1999 after the death of his father, King Hassan II, who had an appalling human rights record.

Still, journalist Ahmed Benchemsi faces up to five years in jail after writing an article about a speech by the king. Nadia Yassine, an Islamist leader, is also facing prison time by stating she is in favor of the country becoming a republic.

With Moutada’s case, the discussion of the Internet and international free speech continues.

By Danny Scuderi