Rights body urges Morocco to free journalist

Taoufik Bouachrine was arrested last February at the offices of his independent daily
Mohamed Ziane, the lawyer of Moroccan newspaper publisher and journalist Taoufiq Bouachrine, arrives at the courthouse on April 5, 2018, in Casablanca. (Photo by FADEL SENNA / AFP)

Amnesty International urged Morocco on Tuesday to “immediately” free a newspaper publisher sentenced to 12 years in prison on charges of rape and other offences, after a trial his lawyers say was politically motivated.

“We believe that (Taoufik) Bouachrine’s imprisonment is a matter of freedom of expression,” the head of Amnesty’s Morocco branch, Mohamed Sektaoui, said at a press conference in Rabat.

“He is paying a high price for his right to peacefully express critical opinions.”

Bouachrine was sentenced in November after being found guilty of human trafficking, abuse of power for sexual purposes, rape and attempted rape.

The publisher, whose Arabic language newspaper Akhbar Al-Yaum has a history of run-ins with the authorities, has maintained his innocence throughout.

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The 49-year-old was arrested last February at the offices of his independent daily, known for editorials and cartoons critical of the authorities.

The charges against him were based on complaints, testimonies and about 50 videos seized from his office, purporting to show him in a variety of sexual acts.

Bouachrine’s defence team said the videos were faked and in any case showed “consensual relations”.

During the course of the trial, four women cited by the prosecution as “victims” denied involvement.

One was sentenced to six months in prison for accusing the police of falsifying her statement, while others refused to appear in court.

In the end, eight of the 15 plaintiffs originally named by the prosecution were recognised as victims and compensated, according to their lawyers.

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A United Nations Human Rights Council working group reported in January that Bouachrine was the victim of “arbitrary detention” and “judicial harassment”.

It also cited a lack of evidence and alleged witness intimidation.

Moroccan authorities firmly deny the accusations.

Amnesty’s Sektaoui, presenting the group’s annual report on human rights in the Middle East and North Africa, backed the UN’s findings and said the journalist “must be released immediately”.

Last week, Morocco’s Justice Minister Mohamed Aujjar said he was “astonished” at the experts’ opinion, saying they had ignored the complaints of Bouachrine’s victims.

Bouachrine and cartoonist Khaled Gueddar were each given four-year suspended prison sentences and ordered to pay heavy fines after publishing sketches in 2009 that satirised the monarchy.

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A date has not yet been announced for Bouachrine’s appeal.

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