A Moroccan journalist has been sentenced to a year in prison on charges of having an illegal abortion and premarital sex, in a trial observers say was concocted to crack down on criticism of the government.
A Rabat court sentenced journalist Hajar Raissouni to one year in prison, on charges of “having an illegal abortion and sexual relations outside marriage”. Her fiancee, Prof Rifaat al-Amin was given a one-year sentence for alleged complicity.
Dr Mohammed Jamal Belkeziz, accused of performing the abortion, was sentenced to two years in prison.
Raissouni previously described the charges as “fabricated”, in a letter from prison. The defendants maintain that the abortion never took place, and that Raissouni was targeted by the Moroccan authorities for her work with the independent Moroccan outlet Akhbar al Yaoum, where she won praise for her coverage of unrest in the country’s north.
Raissouni’s lawyer, Muhammad Sadkou, branded the verdict “regressive”. He added that the judge’s decision meant that the Moroccan state’s claims to respect international conventions guaranteeing rights and freedoms were “lies that have nothing to do with reality.”
Raissouni was arrested outside a clinic in Rabat along with her fiance on 31 August. Plainclothes police interrogated the 28-year-old, before detaining Belkeziz and two medical staff who said they had performed an emergency procedure on Raissouni to remove a blood clot. The journalist was then forced to submit to a gynaecological examination.
Her supporters and observers say that her arrest, interrogation and trial represent a state-led effort to publicly shame Raissouni and dissuade others from similar criticism. The lawyer for Belkeziz later provided medical evidence to the court to demonstrate that Raissouni never underwent an abortion.
Observers maintained that the charges against Raissouni were fabricated. TrialWatch, a subset of the Clooney Foundation for Justice which monitored Raissouni’s trial, said that it bore “the hallmarks of an unfair and punitive process”.
“The evidence did not sustain the charges,” it said. “The defence asserted that blood tests revealed that the levels of pregnancy hormone in the defendant’s blood were so low that it would have been impossible for her to be eight weeks pregnant as the police’s doctor claimed.”
Campaigners report that up to 800 abortions are performed daily in the north African country, where abortion is illegal except when the woman’s life is threatened due to pregnancy and with a husband’s permission. Prosecutions are rare, but charges involving a person’s personal life are sometimes used by the Moroccan authorities to push back on individuals seen as too critical, including journalists and members of the political opposition.
Morocco ranks 135 out of 180 countries for press freedom on Reporters Sans Frontières World Press Freedom Index, which says the Moroccan authorities frequently use the courts to harass reporters – including those who covered unrest in the country’s north Rif region.
“This is a blow to women’s rights in Morocco,” said Raouia Briki, Amnesty International’s campaigner on Morocco. “It’s a sign that reforms to the regressive abortion law and the law which criminalises sex outside marriage are urgent.”
Loubna Rais of the Moroccan feminist collective Masaktach, said that Raissouni’s sentence was proof of a lack of fundamental rights in the country.
“Women in particular, who are the most vulnerable to this kind of unjust persecution, are fighting for basic individual freedoms, the right to their bodies and private lives,” she said.
“Sentencing the doctor to two years and Hajar to one, it’s clear that the authorities would like us to think this whole trial is about an illegal abortion. But we are all well aware that this was just the pretext to silence a journalist’s right to free speech and a woman’s right to her own life and body, even if her connections appear threatening to political interests.”