Tunis — Moroccan authorities should unconditionally release and drop charges against a journalist jailed for a 9 months-old tweet criticizing a judge, Human Rights Watch said today. Omar Radi, 33, is due to be tried on January 2, 2020 for allegedly insulting a judge who imposed heavy penalties on protesters from the Rif region. He faces up to one year in prison if convicted.
On December 26, a judge in Casablanca rejected Radi's request for pre-trial release, notably on medical grounds that he suffers a severe form of asthma and other ailments.
"Criticizing officials is protected speech and no one should face prison time for peacefully doing so," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. "Moroccan authorities should immediately free Omar Radi and drop their case against him, which reeks of political vengeance against his critical journalism and activism."
Radi, an award-winning investigative journalist, published several articles about corruption of officials, and collaborated with various international media as a local correspondent or stringer. Radi is also a social and economic rights activist who has been active in various nongovernmental organizations, notably defending freedom of the press and land rights.
He was vice-president of Attac Maroc, the local branch of an anti-globalization organization that promotes civic action in response to perceived excesses of global capitalism. He recently described to the Committee to Protect Journalists the "climate of pervasive surveillance and harassment" faced by Moroccan journalists.
On April 6, Radi , "Let us all remember Appeals Judge Lahcen Tolfi, the enforcer against our brothers. In many regimes, small-time henchmen like him come back begging, later, claiming they were only 'carrying out orders.' No forgetting or forgiveness with such undignified officials!" Radi tweeted this minutes after an appeals court, presided by Tolfi, upheld the trial court's verdicts against the leaders of largely peaceful protests in the Rif region, who were sentenced in June 2018 to up to 20 years in prison, largely based on statements that they said were made under police torture.
On April 16, police in Casablanca summoned Radi and interrogated him for four hours about a series of tweets he posted, criticizing a magazine feature profiling Judge Tolfi that Radi found overly favorable. The police did not contact Radi again until December 25, when they sent him a new summons. When he reported the next morning at 9 o'clock, the police transported him to the office of a prosecutor in the Ain Sebaa Court in Casablanca. At 1 p.m., the prosecutor began questioning Radi in the company of his four lawyers.
One of them, Omar Bendjelloun, told Human Rights Watch that the 30-minute session revolved solely around about Judge Tolfi. At around 2 p.m., the prosecutor charged Radi with "insulting a magistrate" under penal code article 263, and ordered his detention and immediate referral to trial. Radi was taken to a cell in the basement of the courthouse. His trial started at 6 p.m. Human Rights Watch attended the trial session.
The defense immediately requested a postponement of the case and Radi's provisional release. The prosecutor argued that detention was necessary because of unspecified "exceptional circumstances" that he said surrounded Radi's case. The judge rejected the petition for provisional release, and ordered Radi's transfer to Oukacha prison in Casablanca. The next trial session is scheduled for January 2.
Article 263 of Morocco's penal code punishes with one month to one year in prison and a fine to "whoever, with the intention of damaging their honor, their delicacy or the respect due to their authority, shows contempt to ... a magistrate."
Morocco has been a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) since 1979. The United Nations Human Rights Committee, which monitors state compliance with the ICCPR, stated in its general comment on the right to freedom of expression that the "mere fact that forms of expression are considered to be insulting to a public figure is not sufficient to justify the imposition of penalties." Thus, "all public figures, including those exercising the highest political authority ... are legitimately subject to criticism and political opposition."
In the past two months, Morocco has arrested, jailed or sentenced a rapper, two YouTube commentators, and a student who posted the lyrics of a critical rap song on Facebook. One of the YouTube commentators was sentenced to four years in prison, the student to three years.
"Radi's unjustified detention and trial comes amidst an increasingly suffocating atmosphere for Moroccan journalists, dissidents, and artists who speak out on social media," Whitson said. "If you express your dissatisfaction of the government on YouTube, Facebook or Twitter, you risk jail in Morocco. Not great for a country that still postures as a 'liberal exception' in the Arab world."