An interview with Hajar Raissouni: ‘Moroccans have a provisional freedom’.

Hicham Benohoud, La salle de classe, 1994-2000.


Below is the first interview given by journalist Hajar Raissouni since her release from prison in November 2019. Raissouni, now living in Sudan, explained to Rosa Moussaoui (l’Humanité) and Rachida El Azzouzi (Mediapart) the political impetus of her arrest and incarceration (for abortion, amongst other charges), and her views on the situation in Morocco in regards women, the law, and the press.  

Raissouni refers to the allegations of rape against Souleimane Rassouni (her uncle) and Omar Radi, both critical journalists whose cases remain major political issues in the country. The dilemma for progressives in the country is obvious; solidarity with the victims and survivors of sexual violence, with the clear-eyed recognition of the ‘growing instrumentalisation of women by the state’ (in Hajar Raissouni’s words) against dissidents. 

For more, see al-M’s translation of Rosa Moussaoui’s profile of Hajar, published in l’Humanité in late September last year.

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After a year of this ordeal, how are you?

I would say that I’m in a good state, given everything that my family, friends and I have endured. Unfortunately, with the arbitrary arrest of my uncle, Souleimane Rassouni, our lives were further damaged, especially since his arrest came only a few months after mine, at the end of a massive defamation campaign orchestrated by papers close to the authorities. Our wounds aren’t healed. 

I’m living in the same whirlwind today: The state is getting its revenge on us one-by-one, and now it’s my uncle Souleimane’s turn. 

I’m now living in Sudan. I’m here because I’m afraid of the vengeance of the Moroccan state, after the harassment that’s been levelled against me. 

How have you gotten through this? The persecution of you and your fiancé, who you were set to marry a few days later [i.e., after the arrest]; the forced gynecological exam; your 31 August arrest; your imprisonment?

It’s been a very difficult experience that I hope no woman has to go through after me. Before this ordeal, I’d ignored that women’s bodies can be instrumentalised by the state in order to achieve its goals. I felt reduced to the state of an object, without value; I was deprived of my will. 

The enforced gynaecological examination that I was made to endure hurt me. No one heard my voice, my refusal: I thought I’d died because of the pain and the bleeding. It was an inhumane experience. Imagine a “doctor” forcefully inserting instruments into your vagina, without your consent. I was raped by the Moroccan state. 

For the rest, I challenged myself to stay strong, to not yield before the state. I remembered my colleagues in prison and told myself: you are one amongst others. During my imprisonment, my uncle Souleimane taught me strength. He told me about all the solidarity with me, being expressed outside. Today I regret not being able to visit him in turn, to support him as he supported me; he isn’t allowed visits. 

Your fiancé was also convicted, as was the gynecologist who had treated you, a nurse, and a secretary. How are they?

My husband Rifaat el Amin has gone through this tragedy with me. He became a target of defamation because of me. His career has ended because of the harassment. We’re hoping for a new start, here in Sudan. We’re trying to live a normal life, without fear, without terror. Since our arrest and until now, we’ve not been able to lead the lives of a young, married couple. 

As for the others, the gynaecologist, the nurse, and the secretary, I kept in touch with them. Despite the ordeal of prison, they are also trying to make a new start. I apologise to them. 

You remained in prison for a month and a half. What was daily life like behind bars? Were you supported by the other imprisoned women?

Prison life is very difficult. I was isolated from my family, from my friends, from my work. I wasn’t able to move, I wasn’t able to do anything. The conditions of detention in the cell were atrocious. I slept on the floor, the food was contaminated, phone calls were limited to six minutes a week. The inspections violated human dignity. 

I passed all the time reading; reading was my only means of escape. At first, the other prisoners kept their distance; then they read my story in the papers, their families told them about my fate, after which they expressed their sympathy. 

You risked two years in prison, according to the Moroccan penal code, which sanctions both sexual relations outside of marriage, and abortion in cases when the mother’s life isn’t endangered. 

But, you say, the accusations were entirely fabricated, and you’ve denounced it as a political trial, aimed also at your family. Why?

I didn’t have an abortion; I had an enforced gynaecological exam. I was arrested in the street; there was no proof of either an abortion, or relations outside of marriage. I was due to get married two weeks after the date of my arrest. The police falsified the medical reports before claiming that my refusal to sign a confession proved that I’d had an abortion, and had a relation outside of marriage. 

All of this vengeance is due to my work as a journalist, to the fact I’d covered the popular movement in the Rif. 

It was also vengeance against my family, and in particular my uncle Souleimane, who’s known for his uncompromising editorials, for criticizing the security services and judiciary, whom no-one, in Morocco, dares to criticize. 

My uncle Ahmed, who’s the President of the Union des oulémas, is also a target, as is my cousin, who is the General Secretary of the Association marocaine des droits de l’homme (AMDH), the biggest opposition association. It was, finally, vengeance against my paper, Akhbar El Youm, which takes an editorial line independent of the state. 

Did you have any political commitments? Which?

As a student, I was a member of Parti de l’indépendance, but since 2013 I’ve not had any partisan commitments: I chose to practice journalism. I defend democracy and human rights through my work. I don’t think there can be a press worthy of the name without a respect for human rights, without democracy, without liberty. That’s the meaning of my commitment as a journalist. 

Did the political climate change after the Rif uprising? 

Morocco hasn’t been the same since the Movement of the Rif. Unfortunately, there’s been a ‘security turn’, and the Makhzan [the ‘deep state’] has returned in force to destroy all the pockets of freedom that were won after the 20 February movement of 2011. 

There are serious attacks against human rights, with multiple political arrests wherever people are revolting: in the Rif, but also in Jerada, in Zagora. Both the organisations that defend human rights and the independent press have seen their room for manoeuvre dimnished. Independent journalists and activists are arrested, sometimes on the basis of simply posting on social media. 

How did you cover the events in the Rif in 2016 and 2017?

I wrote the truth about what happened in the Rif, about the security forces’ attacks against the demonstrators, about the militarisation of al-Hoceima [the centre of revolt]. I wrote that the demonstrators were expressing their social demands; that they weren’t ‘separatists’, that their arrests were political. 

I’ve worked on the police violence aimed at protestors. I described, in my writing, the ghost town that al-Hoceima became because of the fear, the violence, the militarisation. I wrote about the suffering of the prisoners’ families. 

After that, I covered the social movements in Jerada and Zagora, all of the social protests in Morocco. 

What are you doing today? Do you continue to write journalism? On what topics?

I still write journalism. It’s been a week since I quit the Akhbar el Youm newspaper. I’ve lived in Sudan now for two months. I’ve worked with several papers. I still follow what’s happening in Morocco, and express my opinion through articles. I will continue to defend human rights, women’s rights, liberty, and freedom of the press. 

How do you recover when you have also been violently and unjustly thrown into the public and media spotlight? How do you rebuild yourself in the private, but also the family and public spheres?

Through self-confidence, through fighting so that what happened to me doesn’t happen to other women, to other journalists. Before leaving prison, I reflected on how I’d return to my life after being defamed by newspapers close to the regime. People’s solidarity, their love, the support of my family and friends meant I was able to pick myself up.

Rifaat, my husband, is a defender of human rights and a Sudanese militant. If he’s been able to overcome this situation, it’s because he had experience of the fight against Omar al-Bashir’s authoritarian regime. And then, I’m a part of a militant family, which thinks of my arrest as the price of our political commitments. 

This affair raised important debates about individual freedoms in Morocco, about the judicial hounding of dissent. It’s shown that women’s bodies are a battleground in the country, and how the freedom of the press is curtailed. How do you see the situation of women and journalists in the country?

There is no freedom of the press in Morocco; there is one voice, that of the regime [pouvoir], and the majority of critical voices are in prison, defamed by newspapers linked to the authorities, or targets of judicial harassment. Independent journals face economic asphyxiation. 

Women’s rights aren’t respected in Morocco: laws criminalising abortion impede individual freedoms. The law doesn’t deliver justice to women in the case of divorce, it doesn’t criminalise marital rape, there’s no equality in terms of inheritance. Women are excluded from political participation, from powerful positions. 

The King pardoned you, not the court; for the court, you remain guilty. How does that sit with you?

All Moroccans have a provisional freedom, with an accusation against them always ready to hand. I’m no exception. 

The royal pardon had no legislative consequences. The criminal code continues to penalise sexual relations outside of marriage, homosexuality, abortion. In 2018, according to official figures, 14,503 people were prosecuted for debauchery [débauche], 73 for having an abortion. Do you anticipate ways this might change?

I don’t think that these laws will change, because the state uses them to arrest independent journalists and human-rights defenders. If there was going to be a change, the debate around my own trial would have sparked it. 

The state is intelligent. It attributes to the Islamists its own refusal to change those laws, but the truth is that no party, whatever its orientation, holds power in Morocco. If the actual leaders of the country wanted to change these laws, they would do it, but they don’t. 

There are more numerous voices – human-rights organisations, civil society groups, feminists – denouncing the instrumentalisation of moral issues and sexual violence by the Moroccan regime for political ends, to repress and silence critical voices, opponents and journalists. How does this instrumentalisation harm the cause of women? 

Unfortunately, the state exploits accusations of rape and of sexual violence to gag those voices, not because it’s a defender of women’s rights, but to achieve its own goals. This will inevitably lead to further attacks on women’s rights, through reinforcing the negative views already held about them. This exacerbates violence against women. This growing instrumentalisation of women by the state pushes society to view the question of women’s condition with contempt, towards an incredulity towards of allegations a woman might bring following a rape.

You were one of the writers for one of the last independent Arabic daily newspapers [in Morocco], Akhbar El Youm. It’s director, Taoufik Bouachrine, was imprisoned for rape and human trafficking in 2018. Your uncle, the editor-in-chief of the same paper, Souleimane Raissouni, has also been in prison since May 2020, awaiting trial following accusations of sexual assault against a gay man. How is your family coping with these events?

The arrest of my uncle was a shock for all of us. He was waiting to be arrested, but he didn’t know the details of the accusations at the time of his arrest. We thought, like him, that the authorities would allow some time to pass after my arrest before proceeding with his. But the regime profited from the health crisis caused by Covid-19, and put him in prison.

Two weeks before, we had the sense that he would be arrested, especially after a threat from a paper linked to the regime, which vowed he’d be in prison before ‘Id. The same paper posted a video of his arrest; one can only wonder how they knew about it.

Unfortunately we’ve seen the police take him to prison without either a summons or complaint [convocation, ni plainte] against him, but by simple decision of the regime. What saddened us the most was that we couldn’t see him. Even his own lawyer wasn’t able to visit until two weeks after the arrest, and even in police custody, he wasn’t able to speak to him. My uncle has been stripped of his legally-guaranteed rights. He left behind a son who is under one year old. We all feel targeted; the law doesn’t protect us. The police are stronger than the law. 

We’re not saying that my uncle is above the law, but we are demanding that he get a fair trial, and a temporary release, since he’s offered all the guarantees to appear freely before the court. He’s been incarcerated for nearly five months; he’s just a suspect, but despite that, he’s in prison. 

What do you think about the Omar Radi affair? Radi, the journalist who became target for the Moroccan regime and today is accused of rape, which he adamantly denies. 

I am in solidarity with my colleague Omar Radi. The regime was shown to be incapable of supporting the accusations of espionage made against him [Radi has been accused of spying]. Typically, like Taoufik Bouachrine, and my uncle after him, he has been accused of rape. 

Omar has been arrested as a reprisal for his investigations, and for his denouncing corruption. Unfortunately, the only person able to testify to Omar’s innocence, our colleague Imad Stitou, has in turn been accused of aiding and abetting rape. 

I’m miserable for this country, which imprisons the best amongst its citizens; the Movement of the Rif’s detained activists, Bouachrine, my uncle, and perhaps soon, the historian Maati Monjib [on whom, see Amnesty’s 2019 report].

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