(Tunis, September 9, 2019) – The Moroccan authorities’ prosecution and jailing of a journalist on charges of having an abortion and sex outside of marriage flagrantly violate her rights to privacy, liberty, and numerous other rights, Human Rights Watch said today. The authorities should drop the charges and release her immediately.
Police in Rabat arrested Hajar Raissouni, 28, on August 31, 2019, and interrogated her about her intimate life. Two days later a prosecutor charged her with having an abortion and sex outside marriage, and a judge ordered her detained. Her trial is set to start on September 9. She faces up to two years in prison if convicted.
“Hajar Raissouni is being charged for alleged private behavior that shouldn’t be criminalized in the first place,” said Ahmed Benchemsi, Middle East and North Africa communications director at Human Rights Watch. “Moreover, by publicizing detailed allegations about her sexual and reproductive life, authorities trampled on her right to privacy and apparently sought to smear her reputation.”
In the same case, police forces arrested Raissouni’s fiancé, Sudanese scholar Rifaat Al-Amin; the doctor who is accused of having performed the abortion; and two of his aides. Al-Amin is charged with complicity in abortion and sex outside marriage, and faces up to two years in prison. The doctor and his aides are charged with performing an abortion and complicity in abortion, and face up to 10 years in prison.
At about 11:30 a.m. on August 31, six policemen in civilian clothes arrested Raissouni and Al-Amin on a street in Rabat’s Agdal neighborhood, near an obstetrics-gynecology office where Raissouni was a registered patient. The police took them to the office, where they arrested a doctor and two aides, then transported the five to a police station in Rabat for interrogation, Saad Sahli, a lawyer for Raissouni and Al-Amin, told Human Rights Watch.
The police took Raissouni later that day to Rabat’s Ibn Sina hospital, where staff subjected her to a gynecological examination without her consent, one of her lawyers, Mohamed Sadkou, told Human Rights Watch. Such examinations, when performed without the person’s consent, amount to cruel and degrading treatment under international human rights standards.
Raissouni was kept in detention at the police station for 48 hours, during which the police asked her invasive questions about her intimate life, and about whether she had an abortion.
On September 2, Raissouni was taken before a prosecutor in Rabat’s Court of First Instance and then charged with having an illegal abortion and sexual relations outside marriage, offenses punishable respectively by up to two years and one year in prison, under articles 454 and 490 of the penal code. The same day, a judge in the same court refused her petition for pretrial release, set the trial to September 9, and sent her to Al Arjat prison in Salé, a town near Rabat.
The court also rejected pretrial release for Al-Amin, the doctor and his two aides, who are in Al Arjat prison pending the September 9 trial. Al-Amin is accused of sex outside marriage and complicity in abortion under articles 490, 129 and 454 of the penal code, and could be sentenced to up to two years in prison. The doctor and his aides are accused of performing or complicity in performing an abortion, under articles 449, 450 and 451, and could be sentenced to up to 10 years in prison.
On September 5, Abdeslam Al-Imani, a prosecutor in Rabat, issued a communiqué, widely distributed to the media, detailing the allegations against Raissouni. The communiqué included deeply personal details pertaining to her sexual and reproductive health, in violation of her right to privacy.
The prosecutor’s communiqué stated that Raissouni’s arrest was “not connected in any way” to her being a journalist, and happened “incidentally,” after she visited a medical office that was “under surveillance because the judicial police had received reports that abortions were routinely conducted there.”
However, in a “letter from prison” published by Al Yaoum 24, a website associated with Akhbar Al Yaoum, the daily for which Raissouni works, she says the police asked several questions about her work as a journalist
, and her relatives, including a prominent religious scholar and the editor-in-chief of Akhbar Al Yaoum. She also said that police interrogators asked specific questions about her relations with her fiancé that revealed to her that the couple had been under surveillance.
Akhbar Al Yaoum is one of the country’s few remaining critical newspapers. The authorities have taken severe measures against it several times since its creation in 2009. In 2018, a Casablanca court sentenced Taoufik Bouachrine, the daily’s founder and publisher, to 12 years in prison on charges of aggravated sexual assault in a trial that the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention concluded was marred by due-process violations. Akhbar Al Yaoum extensively covered the trial of protest leaders in the Rif region of Morocco, who were sentenced to up to 20 years in prison, largely based on statements that they said were made under police torture.
Raissouni is a member of a well-known dissident family. Her uncle, Ahmed Raissouni, a leading Islamist thinker, is the president of the International Union of Muslim Scholars, a theological organization based in Qatar. Another uncle, Suleiman Raissouni, is the editor-in-chief of Akhbar Al Yaoum and is known for his critical columns. Her cousin Youssef Raissouni is the secretary general of the Moroccan Association of Human Rights, the country’s biggest independent human rights organization, which has a long history of being targeted by the government.
According to Chafik Chraibi, president of the Moroccan Association to Combat Clandestine Abortions, between 600 and 800 clandestine abortions a day take place on average in Morocco, about two- thirds of them by licensed doctors. Chraibi told Human Rights Watch that abortion-related arrests usually involve the practitioners but almost never the patients.
Authoritative interpretations of international law have determined that countries that, like Morocco, deny access to legal abortion endanger numerous human rights, including to life;
, health; , freedom from cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment; , and privacy. Human Rights Watch research in countries that criminalize abortion has shown that it drives women and girls to have clandestine abortions that can risk their health and lives. Human Rights Watch believes that decisions about abortion belong to a pregnant woman without interference by the state or others.
Morocco should also decriminalize consensual sexual relations among adults outside of marriage, in respect for the right to privacy as guaranteed under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which Morocco has ratified.
“Morocco’s arrest, prosecution, and brutal violation of Hajar Raissouni’s private life illustrate the country’s lack of respect of individual freedoms, and apparently the selective enforcement of unjust laws to punish critical journalism and activism,” Benchemsi said. “Raissouni and all her co-defendants should be freed immediately, and all charges against them dropped.”