A man smiles for photographers in front of a doorway as other people exiting the same building look on.
Journalist Omar Radi waits outside court in Casablanca, Morocco, on March 12, 2020. The non-profit Bertha Foundation a year-long investigation into land seizure. (Reuters/Youssef Boudlal)

Bertha Foundation: Omar Radi’s arrest blocked Moroccan land rights exposé

The 10th time journalist Omar Radi was summoned by Moroccan police this summer, he was arrested on multiple charges including undermining state security and sexual assault, as CPJ documented in July. He was placed in solitary confinement in the Oukacha Prison in Casablanca to reduce the risk of exposure to COVID-19, and remained there as of last week awaiting the start of his trial on September 22, Miloud Kandil, Radi’s lawyer, told CPJ. CPJ has provided Radi’s family with a grant to help finance his lawyer’s fees through the Journalist Assistance program.

Radi, currently an investigative reporter with the Moroccan independent news website Le Desk, spoke with CPJ last year about the harassment and surveillance facing journalists in Morocco. In June 2019, the Bertha Foundation, a global rights group with offices in the UK and Geneva, granted him a year-long Bertha Challenge Fellowship for mid-career investigative journalists and activists who document injustice. Shortly before his arrest, Radi told CPJ that the National Brigade of Judicial Police had repeatedly questioned him about the receipt of funds they characterized as “linked to foreign intelligence services.”

This summer, Amnesty International reported a series of attacks on Radi’s phone between January 2019 and January 2020. The attacks forced the phone to visit websites connected with Pegasus, spyware for mobile devices that is produced by the Israeli firm NSO Group and marketed to government agencies, according to Amnesty’s forensic analysis. Moroccan authorities denied spying on Radi, according to a Reuters report at the time.

An NSO Group spokesperson told CPJ in October 2019 that the company would investigate earlier allegations of the company’s spyware being abused in Morocco. CPJ emailed the company on September 21, 2020, to request comment about the allegations involving Omar Radi, but received no response before publication.

Pearlie Joubert, co-director of the Bertha fellowship, spoke with CPJ this month via video call about the unpublished investigation Radi undertook for the foundation into the expropriation of land in Morocco, and her fear that authorities were monitoring his communications. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

The National Brigade of Judicial Police and the Moroccan Ministry of Justice did not return CPJ’s request for comment on her remarks sent via their official Facebook pages in September.

What was Omar Radi working on for the Bertha Challenge?

Omar’s project is on land expropriation in Morocco. He researched land rights abuses in four different regions in the country, where the state bought collective lands belonging to different local tribes for very little money and sold them for a maximum profit to corporations.

During his year-long fellowship, Omar documented tens of land expropriation operations that occurred in these lands during the last 30 years. His research did not only focus on specific land expropriators — which can bother Moroccan authorities — but on this systemic problem of dispossession. The low scale farmers and tribe members in the regions he researched keep getting poorer while the land expropriators continue to get richer.

His work with the foundation was due for publication in July, since his fellowship ended in June. Needless to say he was not able to publish anything then, due to the endless judicial summons he used to receive almost every other day.

What are the charges against Radi?

There are three different sets of charges laid against Omar. First, he is charged with undermining state security by receiving foreign funds and collaborating with foreign intelligence. Second, Omar is charged with sexually assaulting and raping a woman. Finally, he is facing charges of public intoxication, defamation and filming someone without their permission after he got into a dispute with a camera operator from the pro-government news outlet Chouf TV who was following him and filmed him leaving a bar with a friend on July 5.

[Editor’s Note: Chouf TV did not respond to CPJ’s requests for comment on this incident emailed in July and September.]

What sparked these charges?

During his many interrogations, the National Brigade of Judicial Police asked Omar a lot of questions about the nature of his work with the foundation. They accused him of working for MI6, the British intelligence service, of receiving funds in relation to his work with them. [They] refer to the fellowship money Omar received from the Bertha Foundation to prove such accusations. It is ridiculous that they were able to obtain his bank statements.

During Omar’s ninth summons on July 25, two sexual assault charges were added to his case after a woman alleged that he assaulted her on July 12. I don’t know if that’s true, and [sexual assault allegations] should definitely be investigated, but what makes me believe they are trumped up is Morocco’s pattern of using sexual violence charges against journalists and activists. The Washington Post recently published an opinion piece by a Moroccan journalist [Afef Bernani] who described how she had to flee the country after the Moroccan government ordered her arrest for refusing to give false testimony saying that journalist Taoufik Bouachrine had raped her. [Bouachrine] is now serving a 15-year prison sentence on charges of sexual assault, rape, and human trafficking.

These sexual violence charges are meant to keep Omar in prison for the longest time possible. While it could be easily proven that the Bertha Foundation and Omar have nothing to do with the MI6, it becomes much more difficult to disprove a rape incident. Since the accusations were filed two weeks after it allegedly occurred, it is very difficult to investigate given the lack of DNA [evidence].

Did Radi believe he was being surveilled?

Omar was certain he was being surveilled, physically and online. He believes that several unidentified people have been following him for several months. The July 5 incident where a camera operator was following him and waiting for him outside a bar was not the first of its kind.

He was certain that his phone and email were hacked. During interrogations, the National Brigade of Judicial Police had a lot of personal information about him and the people he lived with that were never public. They also had records of his WhatsApp messages and bank statements. At some point they even asked him, “Who is this Pearlie you speak to so often?”

The Foundation decided to publish Omar’s work on July 8, a little earlier than planned, just to prove that he is not a spy. The day before, he received a summons from the National Brigade of Judicial Police to appear on July 8, which prevented us from publishing. We started a discussion via email about publishing it on July 16 — he was then summoned to appear on July 15 and July 17! This also prevented us from publishing.

The last time I exchanged messages with Omar was on July 28 via Signal messaging app. I told him that I was worried that our conversations were being monitored. He responded “Me too! I’m on my way to the BNPJ [National Brigade of Judicial Police]. I’ll try to reach you in a more secure way when I get out.” The following day, he was detained.

[Editor’s note: The first paragraph has been updated to reflect a new grant from CPJ’s Journalist Assistance program to Omar Radi’s family.]