Taoufik Bouachrine, a columnist and the publisher of Akhbar al-Youm, an independent daily newspaper, is serving a 15-year sentence on charges that local journalists and press freedom advocates say they believe are in retaliation for his critical reporting. He has been in solitary confinement for over two years.
Moroccan police arrested Bouachrine on February 23, 2018, at the Akhbar al-Youm headquarters in Casablanca on multiple charges, including human trafficking, sexual assault, rape, prostitution, and harassment, according to his lawyers and media reports.
Local journalists and press freedom advocates said the timing and circumstances under which Bouachrine were jailed were part of a wider crackdown on dissent in the country, and were orchestrated by officials to discourage critical reporting, according to news reports.
The general prosecutor said in a statement published in local media outlets that police presented more than 50 videos as evidence. The videos allegedly show Bouachrine engaging in sexual acts, though the journalist and his defense team claimed that the tapes were fake, that the man depicted was not Bouachrine, and that the acts seemed consensual, according to news reports. Technology experts analyzed the videos in court and confirmed their authenticity, though the defense stated the tapes still do not prove the man in the tapes is Bouachrine, according to news outlets.
Asmae Moussaoui, Bouachrine’s wife, told CPJ in an email that out of the 14 women introduced as plaintiffs to the case, only five made an appearance in court to support the accusations, while five others stated Bouachrine was innocent. The four remaining women fled the country to avoid their court appearances, according to Moussaoui. Bouachrine’s wife told CPJ that the prosecution chose to maintain the accusations of all 14 women regardless. The only evidence the prosecution possessed were the tapes, in which only three of the alleged victims confirmed appearing, Moussaoui said.
In August 2020, The Washington Post published an opinion piece by Moroccan journalist Afaf Bernani, describing how she had to flee the country after the Moroccan government ordered her arrest for refusing to give false testimony that Bouachrine had sexually assaulted her.
Moussaoui told CPJ that the prosecution requested the technology experts’ analysis, which was granted by a court order on June 27, 2018. When the experts submitted their reports to the parties of the case on September 10, 2018, Moussaoui said the court did not allow the defense to discuss the report in court, refused to summon the experts to present their findings to the court, and rejected the defense’s requests for alternate expert analysis.
According to the journalist’s wife, the court–without motive–refused to examine those procedures. Moussaoui told CPJ the defense filed an appeal against this refusal, which was rejected by the Casablanca appeals court.
A Casablanca court on November 9, 2018, sentenced Bouachrine to 12 years in prison and a fine of 200,000 Moroccan dirhams (US$20,980) on charges that include sexual assault, rape, and human trafficking, according to news reports.
Bouachrine’s appeal started on April 9, 2019, with prosecutors holding two sessions a week, Bouachrine’s wife told CPJ. Bouachrine stopped attending the hearings in September to protest the retaliatory charges, according to his wife. On October 8, 2019, the general prosecutor requested that the journalist’s sentence for human trafficking be increased to 20 years.
On October 26, 2019, the court increased Bouachrine’s sentence to 15 years in prison for human trafficking, abuse of power for sexual purposes, rape and attempted rape, according to news reports. In a September 9, 2021, appeal hearing, the court upheld Bouachrine’s 15 year prison sentence, according to Moussaoui.
In an editorial published on February 21, 2018, Bouachrine criticized Moroccan Prime Minister Saadeddine Othmani and Agriculture Minister Aziz Akhannouch. In an October 2015 column, Bouachrine criticized two Moroccan cabinet ministers, leading to a defamation suit, according to news reports. A Moroccan court in mid-February 2018 convicted the journalist of criminal defamation in connection with the column, and ordered him to pay a fine of 45 million Moroccan centimes (US$49,000).
In June 2010, a Rabat court sentenced Bouachrine to six months in prison on charges of real estate and sales fraud, Bouachrine told CPJ at the time. He was also fined 500 Moroccan dirhams (US$56) and ordered to pay 10,000 Moroccan dirhams (US$1,120) in damages to Abd al-Wahed Qebli, the former owner of a Rabat villa that Bouachrine had bought three years prior to the sentence, Bouachrine’s lawyer told CPJ.
In 2009, Bouachrine received a four-year suspended prison sentence related to publishing a cartoon that depicted the wedding of Prince Moulay Ismail, King Mohammed VI’s cousin. The police also shut down Akhbar al-Youm al-Maghrebia, the predecessor of Akhbar al-Youm.
On November 21, 2018, less than two weeks after Bouchrine’s most recent conviction, Morocco’s Ministry of Interior filed a lawsuit against Akhbar al-Youm, the journalist’s employer, on charges of publishing false news about weather conditions, according to the newspaper. Akhbar al-Youm wrote that it received a summons to appear at a Casablanca court on December 3, 2018. The Minister of Interior’s complaint refers to a January 29, 2018, article–published before Bouachrine’s arrest–about low temperatures, heavy rainfall, and snowfall in different regions of Morocco, according to Akhbar al-Youm. The newspaper said the report was based on a statement by Morocco’s Meteorology Directorate. As of late 2019, a verdict had not been reached in the case. If convicted, Akhbar al-Youm faces a fine of up to 200,000 Moroccan dirhams (US$21,000).
According to the Pegasus Project, a collaborative global reporting project on the use of NSO Group’s Pegasus spyware tool against journalists and others, Bouachrine was selected for potential surveillance between 2017 to 2018, and Moussaoui between 2017 to 2019.
Bouachrine is being held at Ain Borja prison in Casablanca, according to news outlets. In September 2018, local media reported that a court denied his request for temporary release until the conclusion of the trial. As of September 2021, Bouachrine has been held in solitary confinement for over three years, Moussaoui told CPJ.
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Moroccan authorities have banned prison visits since March 2020, according to Moussaoui, who told CPJ that she was able to visit Bouachrine twice with special permits, including most recently in June 2021.
Bouachrine has diabetes which caused leg pain and he has received medical care in prison, Moussaoui told CPJ in September 2021.
The Ministry of Justice, which oversees the state prosecutor’s office, did not return CPJ’s email requests for comment on Bouachrine sent in September 2021.