New York — Moroccan prison authorities have held an imprisoned journalist in a form of abusive solitary confinement for more than a year, Human Rights Watch said today.
A first instance court sentenced Taoufik Bouachrine, publisher of Akhbar el-Youm, one of the country's last opposition newspapers, to 12 years in prison in November 2018. He was convicted on charges of aggravated sexual assault in a trial that some, including the United Nations' Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, concluded was marred by due-process violations. Since his detention in Casablanca's Ain El Borja prison in February 2018, authorities have not allowed Bouachrine to meet with other prisoners or converse with staff, which is considered cruel and inhuman under United Nations Rules.
"No matter the alleged crime, a person in custody has the right to humane treatment," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. The draconian isolation regime imposed on Taoufik Bouachrine is unjustified and should be lifted."
Prison authorities allow Bouachrine a weekly 45-minute family visit, visits by his lawyers, and two 5-minute phone calls weekly. But they do not allow him to meet fellow inmates and guards are instructed to not speak with him. His cell is unlocked during parts of the day, giving him access to an extra space with no one else in it. He is allowed two hours of exercise in a courtyard every day, but always alone. Although Bouachrine requested and was assigned to an individual rather than a shared cell, he insists that he never requested nor agreed to a regimen under which he is not allowed to meet other prisoners and guards are forbidden to speak with him, his wife, Asmae Moussaoui, told Human Rights Watch.
On March 29, 2019, the Inter-ministerial Delegation for Human Rights (DIDH), an official body, responded to a query from Human Rights Watch about Bouachrine's isolation by listing his prison privileges, including access to a television and a radio set, daily newspapers, hot water showers, and mail service.
The DIDH said that Bouachrine "requested to mingle with other prisoners, and when he was asked to pack up his belongings and move to a collective cell, he refused, and preferred to stay in his cell." The DIDH did not respond to the question about the isolation regimen that prison authorities have imposed on Bouachrine.
That he chose to remain in an individual cell despite being offered another option neither explains nor justifies a policy of preventing guards and other prisoners from speaking to Bouachrine, Human Rights Watch said.
The UN Standard Minimum Rules on the Treatment of Prisons, also known as the "Mandela rules" define solitary confinement as spending 22 hours or more per day without meaningful human contact, and that prolonged solitary confinement - over 15 consecutive days - is considered cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment.
The Essex paper, a guidance document to those rules drawn up by experts, defines "meaningful contact" as "the amount and quality of social interaction and psychological stimulation which human beings require for their mental health." While direct interaction with family members counts as "meaningful contact," the 45 minutes granted weekly to Bouachrine for such visits fall short of the daily minimum two hours required under the Mandela rules.
The European Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment has noted that, "It is generally acknowledged that all forms of solitary confinement without appropriate mental stimulation are likely, in the long term, to have damaging effects resulting in deterioration of mental faculties and social abilities." Moussaoui told Human Rights Watch that she was concerned over a pattern of memory loss she said she perceived in the past weeks when interacting with her husband.
"There is a world of difference between granting an inmate his own cell and cutting him off from daily human contact," Whitson said. "The former can be humane, the latter is inhumane."