Note: As the following translation was going to press through a second website, Hajar Raissouni — whose arrest and imprisonment the short essay analyses — was, happily, released, after King Mohamed VI issued anʿafwa, or ‘waiver of punishment’.
The pardon came on the 16 October; Raissouni (and four others) were charged on 31 September; Rosa Moussaoui’s analysis was published in the French l’Humanité on 25 September. It serves as introduction to the dynamics of the Moroccan state’s ever-increasing authoritarianism, of which such ‘pardons’ are a part.
Earlier this year, the Algerian daily El-Watan asked Moroccan journalist Ali Lmrabet — a well-known dissident, now living in Spain — the following question:
‘Very little information is filtering out about the situation of liberties and human rights in Morocco. However, it’s hardly more than a week, and there are protests. What is it that explains this blackout?’
Lmrabet gave three explanations for the ‘fake stability that’s sold to foreigners’ — the long-time support of French and Spanish politicians for the regime; the docility of French-Moroccan intellectuals (Leila Slimani; Tahar Ben Jalloun); and the security services’ ‘press empire’ in the country itself.
‘Fake stability’ – indeed, one of the great clichés of foreign reporting on the Arabic-speaking world is ‘Exceptional Morocco’: Exceptionally stable, open, and liberal, in an indubitably ‘volatile’ region.
Yet, the state’s control — ‘stability’ — was seriously threatened by mass protests through 2011–12, even if superficial changes to the constitution and a new, Islamist-lite government won the regime (‘al-Makhzan’) several years of relative political peace.
The cabinet changed, but not the countryside. Moroccans suffer higher rates of $5-a-day poverty and destitution than Tunisia, Algeria, Libya, Egypt —and even post-invasion Iraq, as according to Oxford Poverty and Human Development Initiative’s most-recent Country Briefing. Privation is particularly severe in the rural sphere. Such poverty, combining with the state’s blithe continuance of a basic neo-liberal program — privatizations, liberalisations, worsening public services — has since 2011 formented a number of mass movements, all in the country’s ‘peripheries’.
It’s through reporting on one such uprising — the Movement of the Rif — that Hajar Raissouni came to prominence. Through the ‘hot summer’ of 2017, hundreds of Rifian activists and supportive journalists were imprisoned; many have been given five, ten, twenty years sentence – prison cells being fourth reason for the ‘blackout’ still enjoyed by al-Makhzan.
Hajar Raissouni, plume libre et cœur brisé
It’s one of the Palace’s favourite procedures, and one of the worst: lay bare opponents’ intimate lives in public space and in the courts, in order to smear and discredit them in the eyes of a society known for its conservatism — and through police scheming, the instrumentalisation of justice, and political repression, the Hajar Raissouni affair is a lamentable demonstration of the strategy.
On Monday, the 28 year-old journalist was summoned before a Rabat court: she was charged with ‘sexual relations outside marriage’ and an ‘illegal abortion’ — both offences punishable with prison sentences in Mohamed VI’s Morocco.
Her life was upturned on 31 August when, whilst leaving a consultation with a gynaecologist in Rabat, she was brutally arrested by six plainclothes police officers, along with her partner, a Sudanese national and militant human rights defender. United through a religious marriage, they had meant to make their civil marriage official this week.
Caught also in the police-judiciary trap: the doctor who’d examined and cared for the young woman, as well as two medical assistants. All of them deny having administered an abortion, and say instead that Raissouni received urgent surgery to prevent a hemorrhage. By order of the police, the young woman has been subjected — against her will — to a long, painful medical examination, without anaesthetic, as justified by it happening in a hospital, after her arrest. This “inhuman treatment” is close to “torture”, protest her lawyers, who haven’t excluded filing a complaint. Since then, Hajar Raissouni has been incarcerated in the prison of al-Arjat, close to Salé — and her case has provoked an exceptional outburst of solidarity in Morocco, where the question of individual liberties has, since 2011, generated lively debates.
There was a demonstration on the day of her first court appearance, at which 490 petition signatories — a reference to Article 490, which criminalises sexual relations outside marriage — affirmed having broken the law. “The culture of lies and social hypocrisy,’’ says the petition, which is open to men, “produces violence, arbitrary justice, and intolerance. These laws, against liberty (liberticides), impossible to enforce, are becoming means of personal and political vengeance.”
A novel approach, in many ways welcome, but ambiguous: signed by several personalities close to the King, the texts tends to dilute the responsibility of the Palace for the maintenance of retrograde legislation. But, above all, it minimises the properly political dimension of the attack orchestrated against Hajar Raissouni, who is targeted both for her writing, and for being related to declared opponents of the monarchy.
“She works as a political journalist for the daily Arabic-language Akhbar al-Yaoum (News of Today), one of the rare independent papers in Morocco”, explains the journalist Aida Alami. “She covers thorny subjects, including human rights violations.”
“She has followed al-Hirak [the Movement] in the north of Morocco, which was itself the object of ferocious repression”, continued Aida. “She was watched very closely, and isn’t the first journalist to be sentenced for things without apparent connection with her work: Ali Anouzla was charged with ‘terrorism’ offences, Hicham Mansouri for ‘adultery’, Taoufik Bouachrine for ‘aggravated rape’”.
It’s a fact: Hajar Raissouni has never hidden her sympathies for the popular movement that has, for three years, blazed across the Rif, where she’s from. She recently publisheda series of interviews with the father of Nasser al-Zafzafi, spokesperson of the Movement of the Rif, unjustly sentenced to twenty years in prison. And, beyond her articles, Raissouni doesn’t hesitate to comment freely on political events via social media.
Also a target of judicial harassment is historian Maata Monjib, founder of the Association marocaine pour le journalisme d’investigation (Moroccan Association for Investigative Journalism) and accused, with six other journalists, of “undermining the internal security of the state”. Monjib insists on the political usages of these so-called ‘moral’ affairs, which have already ruined political careers, and lives.
“These attacks hurt women more, in a patriarchal society where they are taken as guardians of tradition, as custodians of family honour”, he said.
Whilst in custody, in a text addressed to Akhbar al-Yaoum, Raissouni has said that she’s been interrogated over long periods about her uncles. The first uncle, Ahmed Raissouni, is an Islamist preacher hostile to royal power, who last year became the head of the influential Union internationale des oulémas musulmans (the International Union of Muslim Ulama).
The second, Souleymane Raissouni, is the sharp-tongued editor of Akhbar al-Yaoum , whose politics are anchored in the left. And, there’s the cousin of the young journalist, Youssef Raissouni, who is Secretary General of the Association marocaine des droits de l’homme (Moroccan Association of Human Rights). “Through this affair, with every move planned by its dreadful cabinet, le Makhzan wants to be done with this family of opponents”, judges Maati Monjib.
Defamation has become the first weapon of this regime, but it’s a double-sided sword; through resorting to such underhanded methods, it risks rousing latent anger.
Hajar Raissouni knows she’s in danger. In her cell — still only young — she awaits the verdict, to be read Monday. To those close to her visiting, she’s said, with rending confidence — “I’ll go towards my destiny with a broken heart, and my head high”.