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Outcry after Moroccan journalist jailed for 'illegal abortion' and sex outside of marriage

Hajar Raissouni’s lawyers said the accusations were “baseless”.

Raissouni gestures to supporters as she leaves a courtroom
Raissouni gestures to supporters as she leaves a courtroom
Image: Belpresse/PA Images

MOROCCAN JOURNALIST HAJAR Raissouni was sentenced in a Rabat court yesterday to one year in jail for an “illegal abortion” and sexual relations outside marriage, provoking a storm of protest from rights groups.

In a case that has sparked widespread debate on personal and media freedoms in Morocco, her gynaecologist, who spoke up in her defence, was given two years and her Sudanese fiance one year in prison.

“This trial had no foundation – the accusations were baseless,” said Abdelmoula El Marouri, a defence lawyer for Raissouni, after the verdict.

A journalist for Akhbar Al-Yaoum – an Arabic-language newspaper which has a history of run-ins with the authorities – she was sentenced under Article 490 of the legal code of the Muslim kingdom.

That article punishes sexual relations out of wedlock, while the law also forbids all abortions unless the mother’s life is in danger.

An anaesthetist was handed a one-year suspended sentence and a medical assistant eight months, also suspended.

Meriem Moulay Rachid, lawyer for the convicted gynaecologist, said: “The judicial system has had its word, (but) we will appeal.”

Relatives of Raissouni also told AFP that they would appeal.

Raissouni was arrested on 31 August as she left a clinic in Rabat. In court, she denied having had an abortion, saying she had been treated for internal bleeding. This testimony was backed up by her gynaecologist.

The journalist denounced the affair as a “political trial”, saying she had been questioned by police about her family and her own writing.

She appeared calm on arrival at the courtroom, wearing a black veil covering her head, and waved to her relatives before taking her place in the dock.

‘Devastating blow’

Rights groups were quick to condemn the verdicts.

Amnesty International described them as a “devastating blow for women’s rights in Morocco”.

Instead of “publicly slandering Hajar Raissouni… and convicting her on unjust charges, Morocco’s authorities should revoke her conviction and order her immediate and unconditional release” and all others convicted in the case, said Heba Morayef, Amnesty’s Middle East and North Africa director.

Ahmed Benchemsi, the regional director for Human Rights Watch, described the sentencing of Raissouni and her fiance as a “black day for freedom in Morocco”.

The verdicts were “a blatant injustice, a flagrant violation of human rights, and a frontal attack on individual freedoms,” he wrote on Twitter.

A Moroccan historian present in court likewise hit out at the entire premise of the case.

“It is a case of political repression, repression of independent opinion and vengeance (against) the family”, said Maati Monjib.

Raissouni had said she was quizzed by authorities about an uncle who is an outspoken Islamist newspaper columnist.

Ibtissam Lachgar, co-founder of the Alternative Movement for Individual Freedom – a feminist organisation – argued that the case was “political” in its motivation.

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‘Humiliation’ and ‘torture’

The prosecution insisted she had been seen by a medic and showed signs of pregnancy and of having undergone a “late voluntary abortion”.

It had contended her detention had “nothing to do with her profession as a journalist”.

The reporter herself said she had been “forced into a medical examination without her consent”.

Her lawyers said the examination was a “humiliation tantamount to torture”, while they also pointed to “judicial police failures” and “fabricated evidence”.

The case has received wide attention beyond the country’s borders.

Reporters Without Borders say Raissouni’s treatment amounted to “meddling in the private lives of journalists and the use of personal information” with the intent of defamation.

Between 600 and 800 back-shop abortions occur each day in Morocco, according to estimates by campaign groups.

In a manifesto published on 23 September by Moroccan media outlets, hundreds of women declared themselves “outlaws” by claiming to have already violated the “obsolete” laws of their country on abortion and other social norms.

In the early 1970s, in a similar text, French women calling themselves the “343 sluts” famously declared they had had an abortion when it was still illegal.

Last year, Morocco tried thousands of people for sex out of wedlock, 170 people for being gay and 73 for pregnancy terminations.

- © AFP 2019

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