Morocco: Espionage Case Against Outspoken Journalist

 

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Journalist and activist Omar Radi waits outside the court in Casablanca, Morocco, March 12, 2020.
© 2020 REUTERS/Youssef Boudlal

(Washington, DC) – Moroccan authorities have jailed an outspoken journalist and activist, Omar Radi, on espionage and other charges that seem backed by scant evidence, Human Rights Watch said today. His judicial investigation, scheduled to begin on September 22, 2020, raises concerns that authorities are abusing the justice system to silence one of the few remaining critical voices in Moroccan media.

Radi, 34, in jail since July 29, faces up to 10 years in prison if convicted. The work that forms the focus of the “espionage” case involves both journalistic work and research he conducted on contract for foreign-based clients. Radi has denied all the charges against him, including a rape charge that stems from an encounter that he called consensual. His accuser, who has stepped forward publicly, has a right to be heard and respected, and, like Radi, a right to fair judicial proceedings.

“Bringing apparently bogus charges against critical journalists is now clearly part of the Moroccan government’s playbook for stifling dissent,” said Eric Goldstein, acting Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “The espionage charges and a cascade of other charges appear concocted to take Omar Radi down.”

Radi, an award-winning investigative journalist and human rights activist, has published articles about land grabs by speculators and corruption of officials, and collaborated with various Moroccan and international media as a correspondent or stringer.

Human Rights Watch interviewed Radi before he was arrested, as well as his father, his 2 lawyers, 3 of his colleagues, 4 witnesses in 2 of the incidents for which he is being prosecuted, and several members of his support committee. Human Rights Watch also read news reports on websites that are reportedly close to security services, including some that appeared to set out the case presented to the investigative judge.

This is not the first time the authorities have set their sights on Radi. A court jailed him briefly for a tweet critical of a judge in December 2019. In June, Amnesty International reported that Radi’s smartphone had been penetrated by potent spyware that its developer said it sells only to governments. Moroccan authorities furiously denied the accusation, even though a court had in late 2017 approved the tapping of Radi’s phone.

Beginning on June 26, 2020, the judicial police, gendarmerie, and prosecutors summoned Radi for 12 interrogation sessions of six to nine hours each about multiple accusations, including allegedly providing “espionage services” to foreign governments, firms, and organizations. Media close to the security services that specialize in maligning critics published numerous articles insulting Radi, his parents, friends, and supporters; disclosing alleged details of his private life; and correctly forecasting the date of his arrest. One of those reports, which disclosed details of the police investigation on Radi, was briefly available online and then deleted. Human Rights Watch obtained a PDF version of it.

Driss Radi, Omar’s father, told Human Rights Watch that the intense police scrutiny and fierce defamation campaign were akin to “psychological torture” for his son, and provided a psychiatrist’s note, dated July 28, certifying that Omar’s mental health mandated an “absence from work” for 30 days, effective immediately. The police arrested him the next day.

Radi was placed under pretrial detention on July 29 by the investigative judge who justified this measure on the basis of “the danger of the criminal acts, the harm to public order, and the presence of evidence,” Radi’s lawyers told Human Rights Watch. The defense challenged that decision on September 2, arguing that pretrial detention should be reserved for exceptional cases, referencing Morocco’s Constitution, domestic laws, and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. The judge rejected the motion to grant Radi provisional release on September 3.

The prosecutor’s case against Radi is apparently based on text exchanges he had with a foreign diplomat, contracts he signed with foreign corporate consulting firms to conduct research inside Morocco, and journalistic research he received a grant to conduct on the social impact of collective land expropriations.

Based on police findings, the prosecutor contends that Radi’s activities violate Morocco’s Penal Code article 191 by “harming external state security by maintaining an intelligence relationship with agents of a foreign authority with the purpose or effect to harm the diplomatic situation of Morocco.” Radi’s activities, the prosecutor contends, also warrant charges under article 206 of “harming state internal security by receiving remuneration from a foreign entity for an activity or propaganda that could shake the loyalty that citizens owe to the state and the institutions of the Moroccan people.”

The charges of espionage and harming state security appear to be based on no evidence that Radi did anything besides conduct ordinary journalistic or corporate due diligence work and maintain contact with diplomats, as many journalists and researchers do routinely. There appears to be no evidence that he provided classified information to anyone.

The rape and indecent assault charges against Radi are based on a complaint filed on July 23 by a woman who works at the same news website as him. He claims the sexual encounter, which happened 10 days earlier, was consensual. All sexual assault complaints merit serious investigation, and punishment when the evidence proves guilt. However, there are precedents in Morocco of arresting, trying, or imprisoning independent journalists, activists, or politicians on questionable charges of sexual misconduct.

Morocco has in the recent past jailed other prominent journalists on charges unrelated to their work, along with several internet commentators, activists, and artists sentenced over speech offenses in social media.

“Morocco has a long history of prosecuting peaceful critics on criminal charges, but the prosecutorial pile-on against Omar Radi takes the cake,” Goldstein said. “The authorities should drop all unfounded charges against him, release him pending trial, and guarantee fair and transparent proceedings for him and all parties in court.”

Radi, who has been in Oukacha Prison, in Casablanca, since his arrest on July 29, will appear before an investigative judge on September 22 on accusations of “harming the external security of the State by sharing intelligence with foreign agents in order to undermine Morocco’s diplomatic situation,” “harming the domestic security of the State by receiving foreign funds in order to undermine the citizens’ loyalty to Moroccan institutions,” “indecent assault with violence,” rape, violating Morocco’s general tax code, and tax evasion.

Pretrial Detention

On September 2, Radi’s lawyers requested that their client be released provisionally pending trial. They argued that pretrial detention has to be exceptional under the law and that such an exception doesn’t apply to Radi, who is under a travel ban and has pledged to participate fully in the judicial process. On September 3, the investigative judge rejected the motion to release him on the grounds that “the acts [for which Radi is prosecuted] are dangerous, the investigation is still at its beginning, (and) releasing [Radi] could obstruct investigative proceedings,” the defense told Human Rights Watch. The defense appealed that decision on the grounds that it was accompanied by an insufficient justification. The appeals verdict is expected on September 23.

In the absence of a substantive justification of his pretrial detention, Radi should be released immediately, pending trial, Human Rights Watch said.

Charges of Espionage and Harming State Security

On July 2, a communique read by the Moroccan government’s spokesman at a news conference after a government meeting announced that Radi was “subjected to a judiciary investigation for presumably harming State security because of his connection with an intelligence agent of a foreign country.” The official statement set the tone for a months-long campaign of defamation of Radi on websites reportedly tied with Moroccan security services. Those websites disclosed details on the “foreign intelligence agent” in question, and unequivocally accused Radi of being a “spy.”

Providing information to foreign governments or entities can constitute a recognizable criminal offense, depending on the nature of the information and the recipient and the intent of the provider. But in principle, collecting non-classified information about social conditions, government actions, or business activities and sharing it with other parties, through whatever means, is protected by the internationally recognized right to “seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers,” according to the United Nations’ International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which Morocco ratified in 1979. That such information may reflect poorly on those in power, or that the recipient may use it to speak critically of them, does not justify criminalizing collecting, or sharing it.

Moreover, accusations such as “harming [a nation’s] diplomatic position” and “undermining loyalty to State institutions” are too vague, and risk criminalization of lawful activities, including free expression. Such broadly worded offenses are so open to arbitrary interpretation by judges that a person cannot reasonably predict what acts will be considered crimes, Human Rights Watch said.  

The Embassy of the Netherlands in Morocco

In late 2017, while massive yet overwhelmingly peaceful socio-economic protests rocked Morocco’s northern Rif region, Radi visited the region frequently to work on a documentary film about the “Hirak” protest movement. During this period, a judge approved a prosecutor’s request to tap Radi’s phone. While his phone was under surveillance, Radi exchanged text messages with a diplomat working at the embassy of the Netherlands in Rabat. The messages included apparently nothing more than arrangements to set up meetings between the two men.

Under police interrogation, Radi insisted that his discussions with the diplomat were routine conversations about news developments in Morocco, including the Rif events.

According to leaks of his judicial file, the prosecutor and the police apparently contend that Radi, in his exchanges with Dutch diplomats, provided information about the Rif unrest for Dutch officials to use in public statements aimed at harming Morocco’s diplomatic situation. This apparently forms the basis for accusing Radi of violating Penal Code article 191, which punishes the crime of “harming the external security of the State by sharing intelligence with foreign agents in order to undermine Morocco’s diplomatic situation” with up to five years in prison.

British Economic Consulting Firms

An article published on July 15 by the news site Le Desk, for which Radi works, says that a British economic consulting company contracted Radi in July 2018 as a local risk assessment consultant. Radi would interview people in Morocco’s financial sector to profile the partners in a Moroccan financial services firm, on behalf of a client of the British company who was considering an investment in the Moroccan firm. Radi received the equivalent of about USD1,500 for the job.

Based on Le Desk’s article, Radi’s contact for the job in the British company was a retired officer of the United Kingdom’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office, whose name was mentioned in a purported list of officers of the MI6, the United Kingdom’s foreign intelligence service.

Radi denied that he knew at the time of any intelligence affiliation of his contact in the British economic advisory company, and denied that he provided that person or that company any services beyond conventional research into private corporations.

The police and the prosecutor apparently concluded that Radi’s services were not an innocent consultancy, but rather espionage. The same apparently applies to Radi’s consultancy for another British firm on Morocco’s agriculture sector, for which he earned the equivalent of about USD450.

Radi’s work for these firms, along with his contacts with the Netherlands Embassy, form the basis for the accusation that he harmed “external security” under the Penal Code article 191. The prosecutor’s case and the police report on which it is founded, however, do not appear to contain evidence of the nature of the materials that Radi provided either firm that constitute the crime of espionage, or that he provided it knowing that it would damage state security.

The Bertha Foundation

In January 2019, the Geneva-based Bertha Foundation awarded a grant to Radi. The foundation offers paid fellowships to journalists and activists who work to bring about economic and social change. The grant’s purpose was for Radi to conduct research on the social impact of land expropriation for public utility purposes in Morocco.

The grant was part of a program called Bertha Challenge, which supports Bertha fellows to answer the question: “How is the nexus between property, profit, and politics contributing to land and housing injustice, and what can be done to fix this?” For the police, this amounted to Radi agreeing to an assignment from a foreign organization whose purpose is to stir up a sentiment of injustice among the Moroccan public over land expropriation.

The prosecutor recommended charging Radi under Penal Code article 206, which punishes “harming the domestic security of the State by receiving from a foreign organization any form of gift, present or benefit destined to remunerate in Morocco an activity or propaganda that aims to […] shake the loyalty due by the citizens to the State and the institutions of the Moroccan people.” The penalty is up to five years in prison. 

In 2015, authorities accused a history professor, Maati Monjib, and four media freedom activists – Hicham Mansouri, Hicham Khreibchi (also known as Hicham Al-Miraat), Samad Ait Aicha, and Mohamed Essaber – of violating article 206 after they received funding from a Dutch nongovernmental group to develop training for citizen journalists. The trial was repeatedly postponed and is still pending. Mansouri, Al Miraat, and Ait Aicha fled Morocco after what they described as a campaign of state harassment. Monjib, who stayed in Morocco, has been attacked and insulted repeatedly by websites close to security services.

Charges of Indecent Assault and Rape

On July 23, a woman who works as an advertisement salesperson for Le Desk, the news site that employs Radi, filed charges of rape and indecent assault with violence against him. The alleged incident happened in a house owned by the Le Desk’s director that is sometimes used as a workplace by staff. The woman, Radi, and a third employee of Le Desk, Imad Stitou, a journalist, had been invited to stay for the night, and each was assigned a separate couch to sleep on in a large living room on the ground floor.

Radi and his accuser agree that they had a sexual encounter in that living room at around 2 a.m. on July 13. However, while Radi said the sex was consensual, the woman said she was assaulted. The testimony Stitou later provided to the gendarmerie was consistent with Radi’s account, as the accuser herself acknowledged in an interview.

In an unusual procedural move, the court joined into a single file the rape charges and the harming internal and external state security charges. The same investigating judge will examine all of these charges.  

Charges of Public Drunkenness, Violence, Insults

In a separate case, Radi will appear before a judge on September 24 on charges of “manifest public drunkenness,” violence, and insults, and risks up to six months in prison. This case stems from a spat that Radi and Sitou had with Karim Alaoui, a cameraman of Chouf TV, a Moroccan online website reportedly tied with security services, outside a pub in Casablanca on July 5.

A video of the incident features Alaoui hurling insults at Radi, calling him a “thief” and a “drunk.” Radi told Human Rights Watch he suspects the incident was a provocation based on the fact that the police intervened almost immediately and arrested him and Stitou while Alaoui, who had been stalking him for days, was not detained and faces lesser charges.

In a statement published on Facebook, Radi said that Alaoui had been harassing him each time he entered or left Casablanca’s judicial police headquarters, where he was interrogated. Two witnesses to the incident told Human Rights Watch that Alaoui had been waiting outside the pub for hours while Radi was inside, and started filming him the minute he and Stitou walked out, around 11 p.m. The three men exchanged words while filming one another with their mobile phones.

No violence occurred, said the witnesses. They added that a police van, which was apparently stationed in an adjacent street, appeared less than a minute after the spat started. The police arrested Radi and Stitou, while letting Alaoui free. The director of Le Desk, who reported on the incident, called it a “total ambush.” Radi and Stitou were held overnight and released the next afternoon.

Radi told Human Rights Watch that the police confiscated his smartphone during his arrest, and that a police officer told him that the police had viewed its contents, including conversations on the encrypted messaging app Signal. Radi and Stitou were charged with public drunkenness, violence, insults, and filming a person without their authorization. They face up to six months in prison if convicted. Alaoui was charged with the last two of these charges. Stitou and Alaoui are provisionally free pending a first court hearing on this case scheduled for September 24.

Chouf TV was mentioned as part of the “Slander Media,” a group of websites reportedly tied with security services that was denounced on July 16 by a collective of 110 Moroccan journalists for bombarding dissidents with “defamation, insults and calumny” each time the authorities placed them under investigation.

Sex Offense Cases in a Politicized Context

Morocco has a history of arresting, prosecuting, and imprisoning independent journalists, activists, or politicians on questionable charges of sex outside of wedlock or sexual assault. Some of these trials have been widely denounced as politically motivated and failing to guarantee due process for all parties.

These cases take place in a context in which Moroccan women typically face barriers to reporting sexual violence and pursuing redress, including where they can find themselves prosecuted for sex outside of marriage if their claim of rape is not believed, and in which conviction rates are low.

In May 2015, a court in Rabat sentenced Hicham Mansouri, a media freedom activist, and a female co-defendant to 10 months in prison for adultery. Two months earlier, a leading member of the Islamist opposition Justice and Benevolence (Al Adl wa’l Ihsan) movement, El-Mostafa Erriq, and a woman he was visiting were arrested and detained for three days. Erriq, like Mansouri, claimed that the police set him up and fabricated the evidence of adultery, including forcibly undressing and photographing him at the scene.

In September 2019, a court in Rabat convicted and sentenced Hajar Raissouni, a journalist, to one year in prison for having an abortion and sex outside marriage. A prosecutor publicly disclosed deeply personal details about her sexual and reproductive life, based on a gynecological exam performed on Raissouni without her consent while she was in detention. Such examinations, when performed without consent, amount to cruel and degrading treatment under international human rights standards.

The court also sentenced Raissouni’s fiancé and the doctor accused of performing the abortion to one and two years in prison, respectively. All denied the charges. Raissouni, her fiancé, and the doctor were freed on October 16 after receiving a royal pardon. The case was possibly motivated by Raissouni’s family ties with high-profile dissidents, and her journalistic work at Akhbar Al Yaoum, a daily newspaper that authorities have targeted repeatedly for its independent reporting and commentary.

Other journalists of Akhbar Al Yaoum have been jailed on sexual misconduct charges. In May 2020, the newspaper’s editor-in-chief, Souleiman Raissouni, was arrested under suspicion of sexually assaulting a man. His trial has not yet begun.

In October 2019, Akhbar Al Yaoum’s publisher, Taoufik Bouachrine, was sentenced to 15 years in prison for sexually assaulting several women, in a trial that the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention concluded was marred by due-process violations and part of a “judicial harassment attributable to nothing other than his investigative journalism.”
 
In an op-ed she published in the Washington Post, Afaf Bernani, a woman who worked for Bouachrine’s newspaper, said she fled to Tunisia in 2019 after she was sentenced to six months in jail in Morocco. She had been prosecuted for claiming that a statement she gave to the police was forged to falsely reflect that she accused Bouachrine of sexually molesting her. Bernani said she “endured multiple forms of harassment and psychological torture” after she denied that Bouachrine assaulted her, including being abducted by the police, a police raid of the home of a friend where she was staying, and pervasive slander campaigns against her in media close to security services.

In a Facebook post dated August 25, the woman who accuses Radi of rape responded to Bernani’s Washington Post op-ed. She stated that her case is unlike Bernani’s, and that she is a victim of sexual violence who came forward on her own. 

The “Slander Media”

Between June 7 and September 15, Human Rights Watch counted at least 136 articles attacking Radi, his family, and supporters in the Moroccan news websites Chouf TV, Barlamane, Le360, in their Arabic and French versions. In the past few years, hundreds of other articles were published in those websites and others with comparable editorial lines, attacking Moroccan journalists, activists, and artists critical of the authorities.

The articles often included vulgar insults and personal information. The information included banking and property records, screenshots of private electronic conversations, allegations about sexual relationships (or oblique threats to expose them), identities of roommates, and biographical details, sometimes as far back as their childhood, complete with information on the parents of the targeted individuals.

Chouf TV, Barlamane, and Le360 are part of what a collective of 110 Moroccan journalists denounced on July 16 as “Slander Media,” a group of websites “whose editorial line consists in attacking voices that bother those in power.”

In investigative articles and elsewhere, several journalists identified the media in question as “close to the royal palace,” or having close ties with Morocco’s police and intelligence services. On at least one occasion, Chouf TV correctly alluded to the future date of arrest of a journalist who was still free.

In an investigative article exposing the authorities’ “sexual strategy” to target Moroccan critics, exiled media activist Hicham Mansouri wrote that “secret services exert an increasingly strong hold on political life, by manipulating media specialized in lies and defamation.” “[These media] frequently attack critics and announce their imminent arrest,” a person who was targeted told Human Rights Watch. “When you see your name and your private information exposed in there, you think twice before taking public positions again.” He spoke anonymously, for fear of further retaliation by those websites and the police, which he says work hand-in-hand.

In a symposium organized in Rabat in 2017 by several human rights organizations, the conclusions of which were published in a book in 2019, several journalists and university professors denounced the “Slander Media’s” defamation campaigns against Moroccan dissidents.

Tax Evasion Charges

Prior to arresting him, the police also questioned Radi over bank and cash transfers he received from outside Morocco as payment for various jobs, including for freelance articles for foreign media. The total amount of these payments, between 2012 and 2020, amounted to about $15,000. The case against Radi apparently includes an accusation that he failed to declare these amounts to fiscal authorities. Tax evasion in Morocco is punished by fines, except in cases of repeat offenses, which carry short prison sentences.