Moroccan journalist Hajar Raissouni was sentenced to a year in prison on September 30 by a court in Rabat. The court held that Raissouni, 28, had had sex outside marriage and an illegal abortion. Raissouni, who was arrested along with her fiancé, Refaat, denies both charges. 

The pair were arrested outside a gynecological clinic in the Moroccan capital, Rabat. Raissouni’s fiancé was also sentenced to a year in prison. Her doctor was given a two-year sentence and banned for two years from practicing medicine. His assistant and an accompanying nurse received suspended sentences. The defense lawyers said they planned to appeal.

According to Raissouni’s doctor, she had come to the clinic to have a blood clot removed, not to have an abortion. The defense also asserted that Raissouni and her fiancé had been married in a religious ceremony and were currently in the process of legally registering their marriage at the time of the arrest. The case received a significant amount of media coverage in Morocco. 

Hajar Raissouni works for Akhbar al-Youm, an independent newspaper that is often critical of the Moroccan government. Souliman Raissouni, Hajar’s uncle, is the editor-in-chief of Akhbar al-Youm and a vocal critic of the current government in Morocco. He has said that Hajar’s arrest is a case of her being “singled out,” in order to “settle [a] score with his family and his newspaper.”

Hajar Raissouni is also the niece of Ahmed Raissouni, the former leader of an Islamist group called The Movement for Unity and Reform. This group has been politically influential, largely through its ties with the Justice and Development Party (PJD), which leads the current parliamentary coalition in Morocco. 

For these reasons, Raissouni’s defense lawyers argued that the allegations made against her were politically motivated. Some have speculated that racism may be a component in the case as well—Raissouni’s fiancé, Refaat El Amin, is of Sudanese origin. 

Speaking to Reuters, Abdelmoula El Marouri, one of Raissouni’s lawyers, said he was “shocked by this verdict.” El Marouri said that the evidence brought before the court should have led to Raissouni’s acquittal and that the case was an orchestrated, politically motivated attack on Hajar because of her political views. 

Yet a friend of the couple, speaking anonymously to Inside Arabia, cast some doubt over the notion of political motivation. “I think it’s more likely a human rights issue, about denying women their rights. I don’t think it is because of Hajar’s work as a journalist,” she said. She went on to opine that the kind of criticism that appears in Akhbar al-Youm is commonplace in Morocco and very unlikely to be the main motivation for Raissouni’s prosecution.

Raissouni claims that state police forced her to undergo invasive medical exams without her consent. Her lawyers are arguing that this treatment amounts to torture.

Following the arrest, Raissouni claims that state police forced her to undergo invasive medical exams without her consent. Her lawyers are arguing that this treatment amounts to torture, a view shared by The Moroccan Association for Human Rights. Raissouni has also said that, throughout her ordeal, she was repeatedly asked by officials to comment on her work at Akhbar al-Youm and on her relationship with her uncle Ahmed. 

The prosecution denies that Raissouni’s arrest was in any way related to her work as a journalist. They admitted, however, that the police had had her doctor under surveillance, who they suspected of having carried out illegal abortions in the past. 

This case comes in the context of what rights groups are calling a crackdown on dissent in Morocco. Last year, journalist Hamid El Mahdaoui was sentenced to three years in prison for failing to report a crime against state security. El Mahdaoui’s conviction came after he reported on protests in the Rif region in Northern Morocco. 

Morocco is a signatory to The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women.

Speaking to Inside Arabia, a friend of Hajar Raissouni said, “My friends are victims of a system that attacks individual liberty.” The woman, who requested anonimity, pointed out the hypocrisy in the fact that Morocco is a signatory to The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). CEDAW calls for the right of women to control their own bodies to be respected, yet the government in Morocco has not changed existing laws in order to comply with its treaty obligations. 

Most who spoke to Inside Arabia agreed that such attacks on women’s rights are not inherently a problem of politics or religion. “Islam prohibits many things,” said one person close to the case who wished to remain anonymous. “Drinking alcohol is prohibited and yet many Moroccans do it. It is forbidden to pursue wealth out of personal greed, and yet many are guilty of this. A woman’s right to control her own body and her own destiny can easily be added to this list.” 

Many are optimistic that such changes will occur in Morocco, given the groundswell of public opinion in favour of progressive change, particularly among young people. 

The eyes of the nation have been on Hajar Raissouni, Refaat El Amin, and their doctor who were expected to appeal their sentences, and that seemingly has worked in their favor. The amount of media attention the case has received, as well as the level of support for Hajar in the country, far outstripped what was expected by the prosecutors and sent ripples through Moroccan society. 

Morocco’s King Mohammed VI pardoned the accused, “despite the error they committed.”

In a surprising move on October 16, Morocco’s King Mohammed VI pardoned all three of the accused. A statement issued by the Ministry of Justice indicated that the King was pardoning Raissouni on the basis of “royal compassion and clemency, and out of the concern of his Majesty the King to ensure the future of the couple who had intended to start a family in line with religious precepts and the law, despite the error they committed which led to the legal proceedings.” The statement added that the king was also granting clemency to Raissouni’s fiancé and her entire medical team. 

International human rights activists say the move does not go far enough. “She should not have been jailed in the first place,” said an Amnesty International staff member who asked not to be named. 

“She must be acquitted properly of all charges and her name cleared. Targeting Hajar and intruding in her private life simply for doing her job as a journalist is another indicator of the crackdown on freedom of expression in Morocco.”