Rabat, Morocco | AFP | The trial of a Moroccan journalist accused of having a late-term abortion and sexual relations outside marriage was postponed on Monday after hundreds of people protested outside a court in the capital Rabat.
The case brought against Hajar Raissouni, who writes for the Arabic-language newspaper Akhbar Al-Yaoum, has triggered a furious debate in the media and online about civil liberties and freedom of the press in the north African country.
The 28-year-old, whose paper has a history of run-ins with the authorities, risks up to two years in prison if found guilty under the penal code which bars sex before marriage and abortion, except if the mother’s life is in danger.
Her trial had been scheduled to open on Monday but after several hours deliberation the Rabat court ruled it would be postponed until September 16.
It also said the journalist would be detained until that date, against the repeated requests of her defence team.
The protesters outside the court shouted “Freedom for Hajar” and “Our society is in danger” while brandishing placards reading “My body, my freedom” and “No, to the criminalisation of sex between consenting adults”.
Raissouni was arrested on August 31 as she left a clinic in Rabat, where her lawyer Saad Sahli said she had been undergoing treatment for internal bleeding.
But the prosecution insisted she had been seen by a medic last week and showed signs of pregnancy and of having undergone a “late voluntary abortion”.
In a statement, it stressed her detention had “nothing to do with her profession as a journalist”.
Raissouni, who is religiously but not yet legally married, had been due to wed her Sudanese partner this week. He was also arrested at the same time, along with the doctor, a nurse and a secretary. The court ruled that they too would also be held until the next hearing.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) and Amnesty International have joined social media users in calling for Raissouni’s release.
“Instead of intimidating Hajar Raissouni by prosecuting her on unjust charges, the authorities should immediately and unconditionally release her,” Amnesty’s regional director Heba Morayef said last week.
– ‘Political manipulation’ –
Ahmed Benchemsi, regional communications director at HRW, echoed Morayef’s call for all charges to be dropped.
The case had “a whiff of political manipulation since the defendant is a reporter” from one of Morocco’s few remaining critical newspapers, he said.
Touafik Bouachrine, the owner of Raissouni’s newspaper, was sentenced in November to 12 years in prison on charges of rape and other offences.
He denies all charges and his lawyers say his trial was politically motivated.
According to official figures, Moroccan courts last year tried more than 14,500 people for “debauchery”, 3,048 for adultery, 170 for homosexuality and 73 for having abortions.
However, NGOs say between 600 to 800 women have clandestine abortions every day in the country.
“Abortion-related arrests usually involve the practitioner but almost never the patients,” HRW said, quoting Chafik Chraibi, president of the Association to Combat Clandestine Abortions.
Journalists and human rights defenders denounced the trial.
“What is happening to Hajar Raissouni… has nothing to do with the penal code,” said journalist Omar Radi.
“We must stand up against this political power that uses all sorts of means to silence people,” he added.
Karim Tazi, a businessman taking part in the protest outside the courthouse, denounced what he described as a “selective way of implementing laws” in Morocco.
“The decision to abort is a personal one,” added Samira Muheya, vice president of the Federation of the Leagues of the Rights of Women.
Morocco’s National Council of Human Rights said it planned to submit to authorities soon recommendations aimed at amending the penal code.