Moroccan sex crime trials fuel fears of crackdown on dissent

An all-powerful monarch, a crackdown on protests and journalists prosecuted for sex crimes — nearly 10 years after the uprisings that swept the Arab world, critics say Morocco is sliding back into authoritarianism.

The trial of a respected local journalist has fuelled concern that authorities in the kingdom are increasingly abusing the justice system to silence dissent as they roll back reforms made after the 2011 upheaval.

In particular, say activists, prosecutions are being brought against critics of the regime of King Mohammed VI. Most focus on sexual misconduct and the nature of the accusations makes it awkward for supporters to defend them.

The result has been to muzzle a once vibrant press, said Omar Brouksy, professor of political science at the University of Settat and former editor of now defunct investigative newspaper Le Journal.

“The state wants journalists to practise self-censorship from the moment they decide to write a story,” he said. “Especially if it is on a sensitive issue like the monarch.”

The trial of investigative reporter Omar Radi on rape and espionage charges opened in Casablanca late last month. Mr Radi, who denies the charges, is known for his work on corruption and the links between politics and business. He has also covered sensitive topics such as the involvement of the monarch in the economy.

The king has extensive holdings and is seen as one of the country’s leading businessmen.

“His [Radi’s] accuser, who has stepped forward publicly, has a right to be heard and respected and, like Radi, a right to fair judicial proceedings,” Human Rights Watch said in a statement released at the start of the trial. But it said the case “raised concerns that authorities were abusing the justice system to silence one of the few remaining critical voices in Moroccan media”.

Morocco avoided serious unrest in 2011 after the king ceded some authority to parliament and the elected government. The Justice and Development party, a moderate Islamist group, has led coalitions since the reforms, but according to Freedom House, the US-based watchdog, has been undermined by the king’s support for parties linked to the palace. The monarch remains the supreme leader and controls the security services, religious bodies and the judiciary.

Critics charge that authoritarianism has crept back, leaving scant space for meaningful opposition. The government cracked down harshly on the leaders of protests against poverty and inequality in the northern Rif region in 2017, with some jailed for up to 20 years. Last year, police turned water cannons and batons on teachers striking over working conditions.

“There was a little bit of a political opening after 2011, but that has largely been reversed,” said Chloe Teevan, policy officer with the European Centre for Development Policy Management in the Netherlands.

“Many of the political reforms . . . made over the years have either been undone or emptied of meaning.”

Mr Radi is the latest journalist to be tried in relation to alleged sexual crimes. Since last year, three staff at Akhbar al Youm, seen as one of Morocco’s last remaining independent newspapers, have been jailed over sexual misconduct charges.

Taoufik Bouacherine, the paper’s publisher, was sentenced in 2019 to 15 years in prison on charges of human trafficking and sexually assaulting several women. His trial was described by the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention as marred by violations and attributable to his investigative journalism.

Afaf Bernani, a colleague and one of his accusers, who has now left the country, alleged in a Washington Post op-ed in August this year that police had put pressure on her to testify against him. 

Hajar Raissouni, another journalist on the paper, was jailed for a year in September 2019 after being convicted of abortion and sex outside marriage — both illegal in Morocco. Her fiancé and doctor were also imprisoned. All denied the charges and were eventually released after receiving royal pardons. But in May 2020, her uncle, Souleiman Raissouni, editor in chief of the paper, was detained on suspicion of sexually assaulting a man. Mr Raissouni denies the allegations.

Ms Raissouni, who has also left Morocco, believes she was targeted to intimidate her family, which includes a high-profile dissident Islamic scholar and because of her coverage of the Rif protests.

Abdel Karim Boujradi, general secretary of Morocco’s Interministerial Delegation for Human Rights, an official body, insisted that no one in the country was prosecuted for expressing their political views. Freedom of expression and independence of the judiciary were guaranteed, he told the Financial Times.

However, “being a journalist does not exempt anyone from judicial proceedings” if it was proved they had breached the law, he said.

But Ms Raissouni said targeting critics with accusations of sex crimes was designed to silence debate.

“Charges which relate to morality aim at a form of symbolic murder because they involve a loss of reputation,” she said. “The state wants to give the world the impression that the journalists are being punished for breaking the law and that it has nothing to do with their work.” 

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