Hundreds of people protested on Monday in front of a Moroccan court as the trial opened of a journalist accused of having a late-term abortion and sexual relations outside marriage.
The case brought against Hajar Raissouni, who writes for the Arabic daily Akhbar Al-Yaoum, has triggered a furious debate in the media and online about civil liberties and freedom of the press in the North African country.
Protesters shouted “freedom for Hajar” and “our society is in danger” and brandished placards urging “My body, my freedom” and “No to the criminalisation of sex between consenting adults”.
The 28-year-old, whose newspaper has a history of run-ins with authorities, risks up to two years in prison if found guilty under the penal code, which bars sex before marriage and abortion – except if the mother’s life is in danger.
Raissouni was arrested on August 31 as she left a clinic in the capital, Rabat, where her lawyer Saad Sahli said she had been undergoing treatment for internal bleeding.
But the prosecution insisted she showed signs of pregnancy and of having undergone a “late voluntary abortion”.
In a statement, it stressed her detention had “nothing to do with her profession as a journalist”.
Raissouni, who is religiously but not yet legally married, had been due to wed her Sudanese partner this week. Her partner was also arrested at the same time, along with a doctor, nurse and a secretary.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) and Amnesty International joined several others on the social media in calling for Raissouni’s release.
“Instead of intimidating Hajar Raissouni by prosecuting her on unjust charges, the authorities should immediately and unconditionally release her,” said Heba Morayef, Amnesty’s regional director, last week.
Ahmed Benchemsi, regional communications director at HRW, echoed Morayef’s call for all charges to be dropped.
The case had “a whiff of political manipulation since the defendant is a reporter” from one of Morocco‘s few remaining critical newspapers, he said.
Taoufik Bouachrine, the owner of Raissouni’s newspaper, was sentenced in November to 12 years in prison on charges of rape and other offences.
He denied all charges and his lawyers said his trial was politically motivated.
According to official figures, Moroccan courts last year tried more than 14,500 people for “debauchery”, 3,048 for adultery, 170 for homosexuality, and 73 for having abortions.
However, NGOs say between 600 and 800 women have clandestine abortions every day in the country.