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RABAT (Reuters) - Morocco's government proposed legislation on Thursday which would make it a crime to join an armed group or undertake training in conflict zones, in a move aimed at some 2,000 Moroccan Islamists it believes are fighting in Syria and Iraq.
Like other North African countries such as Algeria and Tunisia, Morocco fears that its nationals who have joined Syria's civil war and the conflict in Iraq will pose a security challenge when they return home.
Authorities have already dismantled dozens of Islamist cells that they say were plotting to carry out attacks on Moroccan territory or sending fighters abroad.
The new bill criminalizes joining or trying to join armed groups and training camps "in hotbeds of tension", a government statement said. It also allows the government to pursue Moroccans and foreigners in Morocco who it suspects have perpetrated "terrorist crimes outside the kingdom".
The bill has to be approved by parliament's two houses.
A Moroccan security source told Reuters that the government thinks nearly 2,000 Moroccans are fighting in Syria and with the Islamic State in Iraq. "Some 200 have returned home and all of them were arrested mainly in the airports when their flights landed", the source added.
The proposed bill also criminalizes acts considered to justify or support terrorism, a move which rights activists see as a threat to freedom of speech as the government already uses terrorist charges to jail opponents and journalists.
A Moroccan editor is facing terrorism charges after posting a link to an Al Qaeda video threatening the Moroccan king on his website although he was released on bail last year.
Moroccan journalists run the risk of imprisonment for criticizing the monarchy, Islam and the conflict over the disputed territory of Western Sahara, while television stations are entirely controlled by the government.
"We don’t really need those amendments to get things worse. All anti-terrorism law should be repealed as we have enough laws in the Moroccan Penal Code to counter terrorism", said Abdelilah Benabdeslam from the Moroccan association of Human rights.
"Most Moroccans joining terrorist organizations are poor, unemployed and live in tough neighborhoods. That is where the fight against terrorism should start, not in killing freedom of speech", he added.
Morocco has suffered numerous bomb attacks by suspected Islamist groups, most recently in 2011 in Marrakesh, but militants have so far failed to gain a foothold in the kingdom.
Reporting By Aziz El Yaakoubi; Editing by Dominic Evans