Written by Aida Alami
When Hajar Raissouni, an investigative journalist with one of Morocco’s only independent news outlets, went to her doctor’s office last August seeking treatment for a vaginal hemorrhage, she was not planning on becoming the center of a national discussion on press freedom, abortion rights and what critics said is the nation’s antiquated penal code.
But Aug. 31, minutes after she received the treatment, Raissouni and her fiancé, Rifaat al-Amin, were arrested — just two weeks before their wedding date. At first, she thought they were being robbed. But she quickly realized that the six men in plainclothes holding video cameras were police officers and that she was being arrested because of her critical reporting on Moroccan authorities.
The couple would eventually be charged with sex outside of marriage and having an abortion, both crimes in the North African kingdom, though abortion laws are rarely enforced. Raissouni, who strongly denies having had an abortion, said she was forced by Moroccan authorities to undergo a pelvic examination that aggravated the hemorrhage, provoking renewed bleeding.
Her physician, Dr. Jamal Belkeziz; a second doctor; and an office assistant also were arrested, charged with violating abortion laws.
Their trial in September caused a sensation in Morocco, drawing crowds of supporters and protesters and unleashing a torrent of criticism from press freedom and abortion rights advocates, among others. The court’s decision to convict all five and sentence Raissouni and al-Amin, who is now her husband, to a year in prison provoked another uproar that was quieted only after the issuance of a royal pardon for all of the defendants Oct. 16.
“We’re relieved that Hajar and her co-defendants are free, but they should have never been arrested in the first place,” said Ahmed Benchemsi, Middle East and North Africa communications director at Human Rights Watch, after the pardon. “A silver lining for this deplorable incident is that a debate was opened about archaic laws in Morocco, and now there’s a growing demand to repel criminalization of nonmarital sex from legal books.”
Naturally reserved, Raissouni is still dealing with the consequences of having her private life discussed for weeks in the national and international news media. But the case thrust her reluctantly into the headlines and onto a list of the top 10 cases of injustice against journalists, and she is determined to use her newfound celebrity to push for a political system with independent institutions and a free press.
“I was not just the victim of unjust laws but the victim of unjust authorities,” she said recently in an interview conducted in her apartment in Rabat. “My case wasn’t really about a nonexistent abortion, but it was the result of the arbitrary politics of the state.”
As terrible as this experience may have been, it seems fair to say that Raissouni seemed almost bound to fall afoul of Moroccan authorities at some point.
She was born into a prominent family of landowners, warriors, intellectuals and political dissidents in northern Morocco and was urged from an early age to hold those in power accountable in a country where injustice largely prevails.
She is also a niece of two prominent voices of dissent in Morocco: Soulaimane Raissouni, editor of Akhbar Al Yaoum, one of the few independent news outlets in Morocco, where she had been working; and Ahmed Raissouni, an Islamist and vocal critic of the state.
The urge to write and express herself came to Raissouni at an early age. When she was just 9, she wrote an article titled “Peace,” and when she was 12, another one titled “Freedom.” She excelled in school and eventually moved to the capital for college.
While studying to become an engineer to please her father, she secretly pursued a career in journalism, writing under a pen name and giving math lessons to support her writing. She started contributing to Akhbar Al Yaoum in 2016 after stints with other newspapers. She now writes about human rights and politics and in March received an award for her coverage on illegal immigration.
The newspaper, with fewer than a dozen reporters, has been in existence for only a decade, but its journalists have been dragged into court on a regular basis. Last year, the paper’s founder and publisher, Taoufik Bouachrine, was sentenced to 12 years in prison on sexual assault charges, in a prosecution that the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention concluded was politically motivated. The sentence was increased to 15 years in an appeal trial last month.
Raissouni said she is not sure she is ready to resume her career, preferring to take time to recuperate from the ordeal and the aftermath of the intense exposure. She still retains the signature composure she demonstrated throughout the trial: relaxed, funny and sarcastic, while never showing fear. And she said she is still determined to denounce human rights abuses — perhaps even more so.
She said she emerged from the experience feeling closer to her husband than ever. She met al-Amin — who fled Sudan for his criticism of the since-deposed president, Omar al-Bashir — on the campus of a university in Rabat only a few months ago, and they were drawn together by their common passion for politics and human rights.
They used to argue about human rights in Morocco, which he considered far more respectful of them and justice than his home country. He sees things differently now, she said, so they have moved on to arguing over a Gandhi quote that hangs on their wall in the living room next to photos of Nelson Mandela. “Victory attained by violence,” it reads, “is tantamount to a defeat for it is momentary.”
“We disagree about Gandhi,” she said. “I am not saying that violence should be the response to violence. But you can’t smile and write articles. You have to take to the streets and protest.”
And they have one other serious point of contention in Oum Kalthoum, one of the Arab world’s most beloved singers.
“Now that you went to jail with me, you need to love what I love,” Raissouni, who plays the oud and the violin, told her husband laughing. “So you need to listen to Oum Kalthoum.”