Casablanca—The sentencing of a Moroccan journalist to five years in prison for indecent assault sparked condemnation Saturday, with media watchdog Reporters Without Borders (RSF) deploring a trial “tainted by irregularities”.
A Casablanca court on Friday sentenced Soulaimane Raissouni — on hunger strike for more than 90 days — after convicting him of indecent assault against another man.
The latest in a string of journalists critical of Morocco’s government to have been jailed for alleged sex crimes, he maintains his innocence.
Raissouni, editor-in-chief of now-defunct Akhbar Al Yaoum, was not present in court to hear the verdict, despite being summoned by the judge.
The last time he came to court, on June 10, he appeared skeletally thin, and he requested an ambulance and wheelchair to enable him to attend the later stages of court proceedings.
His supporters insist the case is politically motivated and part of an official defamation campaign against critical journalists and activists. Morocco insists its judiciary is independent.
RSF said Saturday the sentence “follows a trial that was tainted by obvious irregularities” and called for Raissouni to be freed, pending an appeal.
“After such a long hunger strike his health is at stake. He deserves a fair trial,” the media watchdog said.
Raissouni, 49, began a hunger strike in April demanding to be provisionally released.
He has been in detention since May 2020 after an LGBT activist accused him of sexual assault.
Moroccan courts have rejected all his release requests, despite a pressure campaign both locally and overseas.
A committee supporting Raissouni, comprising human rights activists from several Moroccan organisations, on Saturday dismissed the verdict as “unjust… severe and incomprehensible”.
“There is a political will to instrumentalise justice in order to legitimise injustice,” it said in a statement.
It also criticised the court for “failing to… hear any witnesses, present any evidence… or call the defendant to testify” and for “rejecting all the requests of the defence team”.
In the capital Rabat, around 20 members of the Raissouni support committee tried to hold a sit-in to demand his release on Saturday night but the police dispersed the group, an AFP reporter said.
Miloud Kandil, one of Raissouni’s lawyers, termed the verdict “judicial butchery”.
“How can you condemn an accused in his absence?” he told reporters after leaving the court room.
The plaintiff, however, said “justice has triumphed,” in a Facebook post. “The dirty manoeuvres to politicise the case have been in vain.”
Raissouni, who has a history of run-ins with the authorities, said in late June he has lost more than 35 kilogrammes (77 pounds), much of it since he began his hunger strike over the “great injustice” of his detention.
His trial began in February but has been delayed several times, including over health concerns.
Earlier this week, the judge ordered Raissouni to appear in court to hear Friday’s verdict, but the journalist “refused”, according to a statement read in court.
His defence team had boycotted the trial since Tuesday to protest at the judge’s refusal to allow Raissouni to be hospitalised.
Raissouni’s wife Kholoud Mokhtari said last month that he was “very tired” and “close to death”.
His supporters and activists have accused the Moroccan government of trying to silence journalists, mostly by using sex-related charges.
Raissouni’s niece, Hajar Raissouni, a reporter at the same newspaper, was sentenced in 2019 to one year in prison for sex outside marriage and an “illegal abortion” before she was pardoned by King Mohammed VI.
Another journalist, Omar Radi, has been held in solitary confinement on charges of sexual assault and undermining state security, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ).
CPJ data show four journalists have been imprisoned in Morocco as of December 2020, three on sex crimes.