Afaf Bernani is a Moroccan journalist currently living in Tunisia.

On July 29, Moroccan authorities arrested journalist Omar Radi after more than a month-long investigation into allegations that he collaborated with foreign intelligence agencies. On the day of his arrest, the prosecutor announced that Radi is also facing rape charges. Radi is now among several independent journalists whom the Moroccan regime has accused of sexual assault.

It may come as a surprise to hear that I — as a Moroccan woman and as someone who has experienced the unfortunate realities of sexual harassment in Morocco — am skeptical of these charges. While sexual assault and abuse of any kind are abhorrent and always deserves serious investigation, there is good reason to believe that such allegations are being exploited for political purposes. Why? Because I’ve seen that happen myself.

My life was turned upside down on Feb. 24, 2018, when I received a call from the national police. They summoned me for questioning following the arrest of Taoufik Bouachrine, a journalist and the editor in chief of the independent daily newspaper Akhbar al-Yaoum. For over eight hours, interrogators aggressively pressured me to confess that Bouachrine had sexually assaulted me. I say “confess” because, from that moment onward, it was clear that if I refused to comply with the regime’s narrative of being a “victim,” I would face the fate of a “criminal.”

That day would mark the beginning of a series of traumatic events. Days after the interrogation, I saw not only that the police had falsified my statements but also that excerpts of my alleged testimony had been leaked to state-aligned media outlets. In response to this gross abuse of power, I filed a perjury complaint with the Court of Cassation in Rabat.

Shortly after that, the police abducted me — without presenting a warrant — from the house of a friend I was staying with, having encircled the building with a number of security agents. The police brought me straight to court, where the prosecutor interrogated me for several hours, insisting throughout that I was the one who had falsified the testimony. Later that day, the prosecutor held a news conference where he projected a silent video from my initial interrogation — a video I didn’t know was being recorded. Screenshots of this video were also included in articles about my case on state-aligned media outlets. Immediately after, the prosecutor announced that he was charging me with defamation and giving false testimony. In record time, I was quickly sentenced to six months in prison, with no access to a lawyer. Even though I filed a motion for appeal, the court upheld my sentence.

During this entire process, which culminated with Bouachrine’s conviction and 15-year prison sentence, I endured multiple forms of harassment and psychological torture. In addition to many hours of interrogations, authorities illegally invaded my friend’s home, cutting the water and electricity. I was constantly harassed and defamed on state-aligned media outlets, which in one breath went from sympathizing with me as an alleged victim of sexual assault to degrading my character with defamatory insults and characterizing me as a guilty party. In one instance, the prosecution went so far as to accuse me of suffering from Stockholm Syndrome, while lawyers for Bouachrine’s alleged victims falsely claimed that I had participated in a pornographic video.

At no point during this ordeal did I feel empowered. Nor did I believe for a second that the Moroccan regime was acting in my best interest. On the contrary, I found myself engulfed in a dubious legal process that deprived me of my agency and dignity. It was under these circumstances that I ended up deciding to flee my home country and seek refuge in Tunisia, away from my family and loved ones.

More than two years later, Bouachrine remains in prison over sexual assault charges. Before Radi’s arrest, authorities arrested journalist Soulaiman Raissouni over allegations of sexual assault in May 2020. Not only was Raissouni a former colleague of Bouachrine’s at Akhbar al Yaoum, but his niece, journalist Hajar Raissouni, was also arrested last year over allegations that she had performed an abortion and engaged in extramarital sex (both considered crimes under Moroccan law). The same regime that claims to champion victims of sexual assault subjected Hajar Raissouni to a violently coercive medical exam to build its abortion charges against her.

Like Bouachrine, Omar Radi was targeted by authorities long before his recent arrest and rape charge. Just last December, Radi was arrested and charged over a tweet. Before his arrest last month, Amnesty International revealed that he had also been targeted with spyware from the private NSO Group, which only governments have the capacity to purchase and deploy.

Sexual violence, as elsewhere in the world, remains an unfortunate reality in Morocco. Yet by selectively targeting independent journalists, the regime sends a worrying message to victims and survivors that the only allegations they are interested in taking seriously are — conveniently — against the regime’s harshest critics. Not only does this trivialize sexual violence, but it spells a troubling future for press freedom in Morocco.

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