Morocco: Journalist in Prison After Unfair Trial
Violations, Flimsy Evidence, Speculative Reasoning Led to 6-Year Sentence
After years of police harassment capped by a mockery of a trial, Omar Radi is now in his second year behind bars instead of reporting on government corruption
Omar Radi, an investigative journalist in Morocco, was denied a fair trial and sentenced to six years in prison on espionage and rape charges, Human Rights Watch said today, after an extensive review of the case. An appeals session in his case is scheduled for November 25, 2021.
Radi, a target of ongoing State harassment, has denied all the charges against him. The lower-court trial by the Casablanca Court of First Instance was marred with violations of fair trial standards, including the court’s unjustified refusal to examine evidence and hear witnesses in favor of Radi, and allow his lawyers to examine a witness in favor of the prosecution. The court’s written judgment, which Human Rights Watch has read, relies heavily on speculative arguments.
“After years of police harassment capped by a mockery of a trial, Omar Radi is now in his second year behind bars instead of reporting on government corruption,” said Eric Goldstein, acting Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “Moroccan authorities are trying to make this a case about ‘espionage’ rather than about silencing one of the country’s last critical journalists, but the authorities aren’t fooling anyone.”
Radi, an award-winning investigative reporter and human rights activist, has published articles about land grabs by speculators and broke the so-called “servants of the State” corruption scandal, which exposed about 100 people, including high-level officials, who allegedly acquired state land at a fraction of market value. In a talk show in 2018, Radi lambasted a top security official by name and said that the Interior Ministry had harbored Morocco’s “biggest corruption scheme ever” and “should be dissolved.”
Before he was arrested and prosecuted for espionage and rape, Radi was detained, tried, and convicted for a tweet; had spyware intrusion on his smartphone; and experienced a pervasive defamation campaign against him on websites linked to security services, and a suspicious physical assault.
Human Rights Watch interviewed Radi before he was arrested in July 2020, as well as his parents, eight of his lawyers, four of his colleagues, and five witnesses to two of the events for which he was prosecuted. Human Rights Watch also attended five sessions of his trial and read the more than 500 pages of his case file, including the 239-page written judgment detailing the court’s reasoning behind his conviction, and dozens of news reports about his case.
Radi spent one year in pretrial detention, the maximum under Moroccan law. The investigative judge examining his case and, later, the trial judge, refused at least 12 requests to provisionally release Radi, without ever providing individualized and substantive reasons, as international human rights standards require.
Radi was convicted of harming the State’s internal and external security through acts of “espionage” on behalf of foreign firms, organizations, and states, including the Netherlands and the United Kingdom. The guilty verdict was based primarily on text exchanges Radi had with a Dutch diplomat, and contracts he signed with British corporate consulting firms to conduct research on Morocco’s private economic sector.
Developing journalistic contacts or collecting and sharing non-classified information are protected activities under international law. In its review of the case file, Human Rights Watch found no evidence that Radi did anything except carry out ordinary journalistic or corporate due diligence work and maintain contact with diplomats, as many journalists and researchers do routinely. The file contains no evidence that he provided classified information to anyone, or that he ever obtained such information in the first place.
During the trial, one of the men the prosecutor claimed was a “foreign spy” tasked with “extracting classified information” from Radi, denied the accusation in a letter to the court and asked to testify in Radi’s defense. The judge ignored the denial and request without justification.
The tribunal’s written judgment featured several dubious arguments to justify a guilty verdict of espionage.
These included that communicating exclusively via text messages with a contact at the Netherlands embassy was a “security precaution” that “proves [Radi] was well aware of the suspicious nature of the activities” he engaged in with foreign diplomats. The judgment also argued that Radi’s failure to publish articles after contacts with Dutch diplomats was “evidence” that the contacts “had no relation with journalistic work … but consisted in fact of espionage activities.”
Radi was also convicted for the alleged rape of a female colleague in Le Desk, the news site that employed him. Radi denies the charge and says the relationship was consensual. Although the alleged offenses of rape and espionage are unrelated, the court tried them together.
Authorities’ prosecution of sexual violence in Morocco is low. All sexual assault allegations should be properly investigated, and those responsible brought to justice, with a trial that is fair for both the complainant and the accused.
However, the court denied Radi the “equality of arms” in which both parties have the same opportunities to present their case, a prerequisite for a fair trial under international standards. The authorities denied Radi access to his own case file for 10 months. They excluded the testimony of the key defense witness for “participation in rape,” even though the complainant did not accuse the witness of taking part, and no evidence against him was presented to the court. The court also refused to allow examination of the prosecution’s witness and rejected a key defense witness in the espionage case.
Radi’s case is part of a pattern of Moroccan authorities arresting, trying, or imprisoning independent journalists, activists, or politicians because of their critical writings and work, on questionable charges including sexual misconduct, money laundering, or “serving a foreign agenda,” Human Rights Watch said.
“Rape and sexual assault are serious crimes that deserve serious investigations and fair proceedings,” Goldstein said. “If the authorities wish to show that Morocco’s courts are holding Omar Radi accountable like any other citizen rather than being instrumentalized to lock away a dissident on dubious charges, they need to give him the fair and impartial justice that has been denied him so far.”
On July 19, 2021, the Casablanca Court of First Instance convicted Omar Radi both of rape and espionage charges, and sentenced him to six years in prison. Radi was also fined 200,000 dirhams (US$20,000) in damages for the rape complainant. Imad Stitou, a fellow journalist tried with him as a “participant” in the rape case, was sentenced to one year, including six months suspended. Both men appealed the verdict.
Stitou remains free pending an appeals verdict. Radi, who has been in Casablanca’s Oukacha Prison since his arrest on July 29, 2020, appeared before the Casablanca Court of Appeals on November 4, the session was postponed until November 25.
Distributed by APO Group on behalf of Human Rights Watch (HRW).