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Morocco: An Insufficient Royal Pardon

Mohammed VI ordered the release of a journalist convicted for "extramarital sex" and abortion. But this outcome is far from resolving the problem.

Published in: L'Obs
"Justice: His Majesty the King has pardoned an innocent woman." That is how the Facebook satirical page Le36 reacted to the royal pardon granted to Hajar Raissouni on October 16. A comment more relevant than many political analyses. 
Moroccan journalist Hajar Raissouni (L) greets her fiancé Rifaat Al-Amin upon their leaving prison in Sale, Morocco, on October 16, 2019. © 2019 FADEL SENNA/AFP via Getty Images
Two weeks earlier, the young Moroccan journalist and her fiancé were sentenced to one year in prison for "extramarital sex" and abortion. The doctor accused of performing the abortion got two years. They were all languishing in prison since their arrest in Rabat on August 31.
The case triggered an international outcry. As human rights organizations denounced the violation of numerous rights and freedoms, support for the convicted prisoners poured in from far and wide. For more than a month, Morocco was in the spotlight, as were its dubious police practices against dissidents and its archaic laws denying citizens the basic freedom to control their own bodies.
So a royal pardon put an end to this deplorable situation. Should we welcome this? Yes and no. 
Yes, because Hajar, her fiancé, and her doctor are free. An injustice has been corrected and five people (let's not forget the anesthetist and the doctor's secretary, who received suspended prison sentences) will once again have a clean criminal record, which should have been the case all along.
Yes, because King Mohammed VI not only showed "compassion", "clemency" and “concern for preserving the future of the two fiancés," as indicated in the official statement announcing the pardon; he also showed he was listening to public protests, and maybe especially to the international reprimands this case generated. Let's be optimistic and consider this a good sign. 
But also no, for several reasons.
Beyond "the future of the two fiancés," the rights and freedoms of millions of Moroccan men and women are at stake.
First, freedom of expression and opinion. Make no mistake, it was the first target in this case.
Hajar Raissouni is a member of the editorial team of Akhbar Al Yaoum, probably the last genuinely independent daily in Morocco — as evidenced by the constant attacks against the newspaper over the past decade. She also belongs to a family of dissidents: One of her uncles is a well-known Islamist ideologue, another is a virulent left-wing columnist, and her cousin is a leading human rights defender. Through Hajar, it was most probably her family that was targeted. Seen from that angle, the royal pardon does not solve anything. It does not cancel the sinister message this trial sent to the few opponents left in Morocco: "Keep quiet, otherwise the State will stop at nothing to discredit you."
Then, there are individual freedoms. The official statement justifies the royal pardon for Hajar and her fiancé by invoking "their intention to start a family according to religious precepts and the law".  In reaction, the feminist journalist Fedwa Misk asked a faux-innocent question: "And what if the fiancés didn't want to get married anymore? Would they be sent back to prison?"  We could add: What about the millions of Moroccan men and women who love each other "without documents"? Should they all go to prison? 
It is time to revoke article 490 of the penal code that criminalizes extramarital sex. In 2018, 17,000 people were prosecuted for this offense, as well as for adultery or homosexuality. All were consenting adults who were simply exercizing a fundamental right, the right to control their own bodies as they please.
A petition demanding that this medieval law be dropped gathered more than 10,000 signatures in two weeks. Will Mohammed VI listen to them? In 2004, he revolutionized the status of Moroccan women through a daring reform of family law. Fifteen years later, the time has come for a new revolution, this time for adults of both sexes who should be free to lead their intimate lives as they wish without State interference.
There is also the right to privacy. Hajar's was brutally violated by this trial. As the sociologist Mehdi Alioua reminded us harshly but accurately, "a woman was forced to open her legs for a gynecological examination that she experienced as rape." Worse still, the results of this examination were broadcast to the press in unbearable detail by one of His Majesty's prosecutors.
The king's pardon does not make up for the prosecutor's abuse. It doesn't compensate for the infringement of a citizen's dignity and reputation. It won't prevent the same abomination from occurring again.
Finally, abortion. It remains a crime in Morocco, in violation of several rights including a woman's right to life and to health. Why? Because, as has been amply proven, criminalization does not lead to a decrease in abortions. All it does is compel women to resort to dangerous, non-medicalized abortions performed by charlatans in sinister backrooms. 
600 to 800 abortions take place every day in Morocco, two thirds of them performed by doctors. Following Hajar's gynecologist's misfortune, his colleagues will probably be very reluctant to carry out abortions. The mathematical consequence is that the number of Moroccan women risking their lives every day in disastrous conditions could be multiplied by three.
So yes, the royal pardon enabled Hajar Raissouni, her fiancé, and her doctor to be released. We should be happy about that. But for as long as unjust laws and wretched security practices continue to jeopardize the freedom and health of millions of Moroccan women, there is no cause for celebration. 


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