A Moroccan journalist has been sentenced to a year in prison after being found guilty of obtaining an “illegal” abortion, which she denies she ever had.
Hajar Raissouni was also found guilty of having premarital sex in a trial in the capital Rabat on Monday, which her supporters characterize as a politically motivated attack to suppress press freedom.
Raissouni, who works for the independent Moroccan daily Akhbar al-Youm, and her Sudanese fiancé Rifaat al-Amin were arrested on August 31 as they left a doctor’s office in Rabat, the couple’s lawyer Abdelaziz Nouidi said in an interview with CNN. Amin was also sentenced to a year behind bars for premarital sex.
Akhbar al-Yaoum is one of the few remaining newspapers critical of the government left in Morocco. According to Human Rights Watch, it has been clamped down by authorities on several occasions since it began publishing in 2009.
Raissouni’s uncle, Souliman Raissouni, who is Akhbar al-Youm’s editor-in-chief, told CNN that undercover police officers questioned the couple about the medical treatment she was receiving. They accused her of having had an abortion, a crime in Morocco, Souliman Raissouni said.
Her gynecologist was given two years in jail, while an anesthetist and medical assistant were given suspended sentences of a year and eight months respectively, Nouidi, who represents Raissouni and Amin, said.
Raissouni has repeatedly denied an abortion procedure took place, and she had visited the clinic to undergo treatment for internal bleeding, Nouidi said. The lawyer said they are in the process of appealing Monday’s verdict.
According to the country’s penal code, abortion is only allowed “if necessary to protect the mother’s health” and is otherwise punishable with up to two years in prison and a fine. Sex out of wedlock is also a criminal offense, punishable with up to one year in prison.
Raissouni’s lawyer said there was a number of irregularities surrounding her arrest. Nouidi said she was forcibly made to undergo a vaginal examination that was not “under medical and international standards.”
“This practice is unacceptable, it amounts to rape and the government should be held accountable for that,” Nouidi said.
In a letter sent from prison to Akhbar al-Youm, Raissouni said the police interrogated her about her work and her uncles Souliman and Ahmed Raissouni. Ahmed Raissouni is the former leader of one of Morocco’s largest Islamic groups, the Movement for Unity and Reform.
“They asked me why I went to my fiancé’s house, when he was traveling. I told them I took his dog Rika to the garden. It is then that I realized I was under surveillance,” Raissouni wrote in the letter.
The prosecution insists Raissouni had an abortion, citing the results of a medical examination in a public statement issued on September 5.
Prosecutor Abdeslam Imani also rejected accusations that the charges against her were motivated by Raissouni’s work as a journalist.
The Moroccan government would not respond to CNN’s request for comment.
‘Silence female journalists’
The case has drawn outrage among rights groups and supporters, who accuse the prosecutors of trumped up charges. While others have criticized the country’s penal code for curtailing women’s rights.
In September, hundreds of Moroccan women and men signed an open letter in solidarity with Raissouni, which was published in the French daily Le Monde.
“We, Moroccan citizens, declare that we are outlaws. We are violating laws that are unfair, obsolete, no longer necessary. We had sex outside marriage. We have undergone, performed or been accomplices in an abortion,” it read.
Ahmed Benchemsi, advocacy and communications director for Human Rights Watch’s Middle East and North Africa division, described the sentence on Twitter as “a blatant injustice, a flagrant violation of human rights, and a frontal attack on individual freedoms. This is a black day for freedom in Morocco.”
Raissouni’s uncle Souliman told CNN the real issue here is “slander and defamation.”
“Let me be clear, I’m against any repressive legislation that criminalizes abortion,” he said, adding that Raissouni’s case was being compromised by “modernists” contextualizing it as an abortion debate when the real issue here was press freedom.
“We can’t turn a blind eye on the harassment of journalists, the lack of freedom of expression, freedom to uncover corruption and injustice, the right to freely express opinion, to critically question human rights in this country.
“If the authorities can’t find a morality case to silence courageous and independent, female journalists, they will invent one.”
This story has been updated to correct the defendants represented by lawyer Abdelaziz Nouidi.