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 retaliation for his critical reporting. He has been in solitary confinement for three 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.
On February 27, 2018, Akhbar al-Youm alleged that Bouachrine’s office had been bugged and that he would be blackmailed into confessing, according to news 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 that police presented more than 50 videos allegedly showing Bouachrine engaging in sexual acts, but 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, but 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.
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.
The journalist is known for his editorials and columns criticizing the government. In an editorial published on February 21, 2018, Bouachrine criticized then-Moroccan Prime Minister Saadeddine Othmani and then-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).
The journalist was sentenced to a four year suspended term in prison in 2009 over his publishing of a cartoon and was sentenced to six months in prison in 2010 on charges of real estate and sales fraud, as CPJ documented at the time.
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 the 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 late 2023, Bouachrine is in solitary confinement upon his request, Moussaoui told CPJ.
Bouachrine has diabetes, which causes him leg pain, and he has received medical care in prison, Moussaoui said.
The Ministry of Justice, which oversees the state prosecutor’s office, did not return CPJ’s emailed requests for comment on Bouachrine’s case sent in late 2023.