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Meet Omar Radi, the Moroccan Journalist Who Was Jailed for a Single Tweet & Faces Trial on March 5

Web ExclusiveFebruary 26, 2020
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In Morocco, journalists, human rights defenders and activists increasingly face harassment, censorship, torture and imprisonment simply for expressing their opinion. We look at the case of Omar Radi, an award-winning investigative Moroccan journalist who faces a year in prison for a single tweet. Last April he condemned a judge in Casablanca who imposed long prison terms on leaders of protests in the country’s Rif region. The activists were sentenced largely based on statements that they said after allegedly being tortured by police. We speak with Radi before he returns to Morocco in anticipation of a hearing scheduled for March 5.

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StoryAug 03, 2020“They Have No Evidence”: Moroccan Journalist Omar Radi Jailed, Surveilled After Criticizing Gov’t
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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman. In Morocco, journalists, human rights defenders, activists increasingly face harassment, censorship, torture and imprisonment simply for expressing their opinion. We’re going to look now at the case of Omar Radi, an award-winning investigative Moroccan journalist who faces a year in prison for a single tweet. Last April, he condemned a judge in Casablanca, who imposed long prison terms on leaders of the protests in Morocco’s Rif region. The activists were sentenced largely based on statements that they said after allegedly being tortured by police. Omar Radi tweeted, quote, “Let us all remember Appeals Judge Lahcen Tolfi, the enforcer against our brothers. In many regimes, small-time henchmen like him come back begging, later, claiming they were only 'carrying out orders.' No forgetting or forgiveness with such undignified officials!” That was the tweet in April. In December, Omar Radi was arrested and charged with insulting a magistrate. He’s since been conditionally released. His trial is scheduled for March 5th.

For more, we go to London, where we’re joined by Omar Radi before he returns to Morocco in anticipation of his hearing, again, an award-winning investigative journalist, human rights defender, member of the association Attac Maroc, working on human rights movements and social justice in Morocco.

Omar Radi, welcome to Democracy Now! Can you talk about why you were arrested and why you are going on trial in Morocco?

OMAR RADI: Officially, I was arrested for a tweet, this tweet you mentioned. But the real reason is that three days before I was arrested, I was put in jail, I was in Algeria, actually. Algeria don’t have a good relationship with Morocco. And in Algeria, I was invited to a journalism award ceremony, where I spoke to the public about the Moroccan political economy with other colleague journalists. And I spoke about economic predation in Morocco, also state capture model of economy. And I think this is the real reason that upsets the Moroccan establishment. And that’s why, once back to my country, I’ve been summoned by the police and then instantly presented to the prosecutor and then the judge, and put in jail the same day.

AMY GOODMAN: And so, what happened once you were put in jail? What prison were you transferred to?

OMAR RADI: I was transferred to the prison of Casablanca, where I live. And I spent there five days — six days. And in the six days, a lot happened. International solidarity, a lot of medias and also human rights NGOs made campaign for my release. And the pressure pushed the authorities to release me on bail and to keep pursuing me in freedom. I was free, waiting for my next hearing.

AMY GOODMAN: What do you face right now in this trial? Is it a trial or a hearing that you’ll return for in March?

OMAR RADI: I’m on a trial, on a first instance, a first-degree trial. And I face a sentence of one year in jail for insulting a judge. The problem is, I’m not the only one. After me, a lot of people have been arrested for the same reasons or for similar reasons. Musicians, Facebook users, YouTube users, many of them for speaking out, they found themselves in jail, and sometimes for a longer time than than what I faced, four years for the latest one.

AMY GOODMAN: I’m looking at a report from Human Rights Watch saying that Morocco has arrested, jailed or sentenced a rapper, two YouTube commentators, a student who posted the lyrics of a critical rap song on Facebook. One of the YouTube commentators was sentenced to four years in prison, the student to three years.

OMAR RADI: Yes, and many more. It’s hundreds of people that are in jail since like four years after the uprising of the people of the Rif region. It was the first time we had — since years, we hadn’t a large movement, street movement in the streets. And the only answer of the state was oppression, was violence, was torture, was arresting those people and sentencing them to years of jail. And this is the result of the state becoming a police state. The state is becoming a police state because they have no other option, because economically the state is not a good shape. And the police and intelligence services are ruling the country right now, even in the social fields and economic fields.

AMY GOODMAN: So, if you could give us some context, Omar Radi, about what is happening in Morocco? Go back to October 2016 with the protests around the crushing to death of a fish seller in a garbage truck. Again, this was in the Rif region. And describe where the Rif region is, what its history of resistance is. And then, what happened after the protests occurred? And how many people were arrested?

OMAR RADI: Yeah, Moroccan street was pretty quiet since 2011, where the king, after the Moroccan version, part of the Arab Spring, the king offered a new constitution and new elections. But it was like a bluff, because no promises have been satisfied, have been
done by the king. And also, the situation got worse, situation on a human rights level, on a employment level among the youth, etc., and public services, such as healthcare and education. And also, Morocco used its very privileged position in the region, in the MENA region, as most stable country in the region, and the propaganda was like, “They want us to become like Syria. They want us to become like Yemen or Libya.” And that’s why there was no large street movement since 2011 until 2016, where Mouhcine Fikri has been crushed in a garbage truck in the city of Al Hoceima, in the north Mediterranean region of Morocco.

And it triggered a very, very large movement, where leaders called for weekly protests, but also frequent general strikes in the city. And the first time in the history of Morocco, a call for a strike in the whole region succeeded to 100%. Every shop was closed. Every cafe was closed. And this was a huge, strong sign to Rabat, to the capital of Morocco, and to the establishment, and who promises, years ago, to this region jobs and hospitals and economic opportunities, but nothing has been done by the state there. That’s why the anger was stronger than ever in 2016. And that’s why violence, state violence, and repression was also strong, because the state knew he has nothing, no political offer to give them, but oppression. We are, in Morocco, at 93% of public debt, and a lot of resources have been spent on projects that has no compatibility with the immediate social and economic demands, such as the high-speed trains that will be extended this year, such as bit other projects that are launched by the King Mohammed VI. And now immediate demands are asked by a lot of of the population, and the state has no resources to satisfy that. That’s why they sent the police and the judiciary system to put an end to the problem by the oppression. Now we have hundreds of people in jail, but an anger and a feeling of humiliation that is large among Moroccan people.

AMY GOODMAN: And if you can talk about why the crushing to death of this fish seller in a garbage truck, why it struck such a chord, what he symbolized to the people of Morocco?

OMAR RADI: Yeah, I think Moroccan — it was a degree of humiliation that people can’t bear anymore. After years of silence and of accepting their situation, and after the impact of Arab Spring, we lost in — the Moroccan people, who was asking for more democracy, lost in 2011 and were just waiting for another political opportunity to contribute to a new balance of power that makes a new deal with the state and give them more rights, etc. So, I think, in the Rif region, this also form of the crime against Mouhcine Fikri, I mean, crushed in a garbage truck under the order of a police officer, it’s top of humiliation for this population, who feels already humiliated since one century by the central state in Morocco. This region is, every 20 years, subjected to violence and to state violence and to oppression. In 1958, in 1965, in 1984 and 2004, every two decades, there is a huge crackdown on the population of this region. That’s why I think they felt very, very humiliated, and they called to take to the streets, called all the population to take to the streets and to ask for demands that were very basic. They didn’t ask for anything surreal. They asked for a hospital and a cancer hospital, because cancer rates are very high there, because state, in the '50s, used chemical arms against the population. And hospitals and jobs, that's what they asked. This region suffers an unemployment rate among the youth that hits 40%, which is the highest rate, unemployment rate, in Morocco. And that explains also why those people were strongly and unified in the streets.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about the book that you are writing right now on corruption in Morocco? And do you think that plays into why you are facing a prison sentence right now? I mean, you tweeted in April, and you were picked up in December — that’s many months later — for one tweet. Was it much more the awareness of what you were doing and what you’re about to come out with?

OMAR RADI: Yeah, it’s public. I’m not working on corruption in Morocco. I’m working on an aspect of corruption in Morocco related to land right abuses in Morocco and more on land predation and state capture, so people involved in land — in using the laws and using government prerogatives against — to get easily lands for cheaper rates. I work on this phenomenon, and I try to put — to focus on and to explain the high injustice against the population, that is displaced, that is expropriated, that is kicked out of their lands where they lived for centuries. And I’m focusing on tribal lands in Morocco, where they stayed. And in the last king’s speech, the king decided to put an end to the collective ownership form of lands, so they make every land a private property. And this is a danger for many, many people in Morocco that live from these lands, to whom the state has no other solution, no other alternative. They are — most of them are farmers and suffer an illiteracy rate too high to change jobs, to live in a city, etc. So, they are pushed into poverty without no alternative, without no help and without their lands. Even their assets are being lost, and they have a very, very low compensation that cannot make them afford a similar land or similar way of life than before. This is the phenomenon I’m focusing on in the study I’m writing right now. And I think —

AMY GOODMAN: And what kind of risks have you gone to to expose this?

OMAR RADI: It’s always risky to do investigative journalism in Morocco, on every topic, not only this one. And all the topics involve high-rank people in the country, especially the kings in surroundings and the kings in person, because the king, above the fact that he is the king, also he’s a political personality, he’s also a businessman, and a businessman that is involved in a lot of vital sectors in Morocco — energy, banks, insurance, mining sector, etc. So, it’s hard not to investigate a topic without finding relationships with companies related or belonging to the king or the royal family or big capital actors, that are all, too, related, in their turn, related to the royal policy in Morocco.

AMY GOODMAN: So, you were arrested and face up to a year in prison. And as you point out, hundreds of other people — what, at your estimate, 500? — have been jailed for expressing their opinion. You are leading a campaign to expose, to present their stories, as you are more well known. Explain what you’re doing, and tell us the story of some of those who have been jailed.

OMAR RADI: Yeah, there is a campaign. This year, we want that 2020 would be the year without any political detainee in Morocco. While I was in jail, this spectacular solidarity campaign in Morocco and abroad have been redirected to the other political prisoners. I feel privileged and lucky to have all this solidarity campaign, but not the others. They didn’t have the same attention from the national and international public opinion. That’s why I work to redirect all this solidarity campaign to other people that are unjustly put in jail, some of them for one year, but some of them for 20 years in jail. And we are pushing to the state to release all these prisoners as a first sign of — as a first sign of showing goodwill towards the population, because political detainees are — we have the highest number of political detainees today in the whole Mohammed VI era. In 20 years, we have the highest number of political prisoners and journalists in jail, and this is very concerning. And we don’t want a country like that. We don’t want a Morocco with political detention and with people — with teenagers in jail for having written rap song lyrics on their Facebook page. This is ridiculous, and this is a shame.

AMY GOODMAN: Omar, I wanted to ask you about what happened on February 9th, some 10,000 protesters taking to the streets of Rabat, condemning President Trump’s so-called peace plan for Israel and Palestine, that would grant Israel sovereignty over large areas of the occupied West Bank — Jerusalem would be under total Israeli control, all Jewish settlers in the occupied territory would be allowed to remain in their homes — drafted by Trump’s son-in-law, the developer Jared Kushner, his senior adviser, without input from Palestinians. Can you talk about Moroccans’ response to this, why the protesters were in the streets?

OMAR RADI: Yeah, Moroccans have a long tradition of solidarity with Palestinian people struggling against the Israeli occupation. The protests in Morocco are very, very crowded, and numbers of Moroccans come from everywhere to Rabat to march against the Israeli occupation in every occasion. And last time, in February, February 9, the Moroccans went to the streets in Rabat expressing indignation against Trump’s deal on Palestine, but also from the — what has been called a shameful position of the Moroccan authorities, because Moroccan authorities said, “OK, we are going to study this offer, this Donald Trump’s offer, and we’re going to get back, give a feedback, and we’re going to decide our position.” Then they did not support the Palestinian position, refusing — refusing this Donald Trump’s deal.

And in the meantime, we learned that Netanyahu asked Donald Trump to open a diplomatic representation in — a U.S. diplomatic representation in the Western Sahara. So, it shows — Morocco did not comment on this, but it shows how warm are the relationship between Morocco and Israel. And this indignates a lot the Moroccan — the pro-Palestinian Moroccans. That’s why they went to the streets on February 9, not only against Donald Trump’s plan, but also against Moroccan authorities and their positions, very lax positions towards the Israelis.

AMY GOODMAN: I mean, this is a very interesting development. If the U.S. were to set up some kind of consulate in Western Sahara, it would be the first country in the world to recognize Morocco’s occupation of Western Sahara. Interestingly, the former national security adviser John Bolton was very much against the U.S. doing this in support of the Sahrawis. But now that he’s out, the idea that that possibly could happen, what is your sense of how real this is, that in exchange for Israel — in exchange for Morocco normalizing relations with Israel, the U.S. would set up a consulate to affirm the occupation of Western Sahara?

OMAR RADI: I mean, Moroccan relations with Israel are very normalized. We have commercially relations with Israel, and a lot of culture and exchange with this country. It’s just that we don’t have diplomatic representations, official diplomatic representations. So, Morocco doesn’t need to normalize its relations with Israel. Morocco and Israel are, in fact, very, very friends. And this is why Morocco didn’t take a very clear position on Donald Trump’s plan. And Morocco uses his friendship with Israel to get more privileges and more rights in the international level. And it shows up clearly with this Netanyahu proposition to Donald Trump to open a consulate in Laayoune, in Western Sahara. So, I don’t think normalizing with Israel is the point here. The point here is using the friendship between Morocco and Israel to go further on questions like Western Sahara and so on.

AMY GOODMAN: And I wanted to ask you about Western Sahara. The Sahrawi human rights leader Aminatou Haidar has led a peaceful campaign to resist the Moroccan occupation of Western Sahara, often referred to as Africa’s last colony. I had a chance to speak with Aminatou in December in Stockholm, Sweden, when she was honored with a Right Livelihood Award, often called the Alternative Nobel. And I asked her to explain what’s happening in occupied Western Sahara. This is what she said.

AMINATOU HAIDAR: [translated] I would want to let them know about the situation of my people, the Sahrawi people. It’s a people that is separated, one under Moroccan occupation and the other one in Sahrawi camps. They live in difficult conditions. And I come from the occupied territory under Moroccan occupation. Western Sahara is an ex-colony, an ex-Spanish colony, the last colony in Africa. Since ’75, it is occupied by the kingdom of Morocco. This has been a tragedy for us. It has led to a lot of suffering, deprivation of our rights, torture, disappearance, arbitrary detention, the deprivation of our social, economic, cultural, political rights.

AMY GOODMAN: So, Omar Radi, I wanted to ask you if you could talk about how Western Sahara, Morocco’s occupation of Western Sahara, is seen in the rest of Morocco.

OMAR RADI: I think Moroccans, in their daily life, don’t talk a lot about Western Sahara. It’s not a big concern for Moroccans. There are a lot of other problems, human rights problems, social and economic problems. And also, there is something that makes them don’t like this topic, is it’s ubiquitous. It’s always. It’s everywhere. And there is a state propaganda about the question of Western Sahara that can’t make — can’t let people have a free debate about what happens. It’s very rare where we have people, in the day — in ordinary people, talking about Western Sahara. But either in Western Sahara and in Morocco, people suffer from the same things, from the same economic predation, from the same human rights — crackdown on human rights, etc. And there is a lot of common points between the populations there in Morocco. And this is the first thing that should concern people and the human rights organizations. And organizations point this out, because in every report on Morocco and Western Sahara — Human Rights Watch, Moroccan Association of Human Rights or other associations — point out that torture, kidnappings, arrest of people and jailing them are phenomenons that happen everywhere. And this is, I think, the real problem here. Even Aminatou Haidar suffered from this.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, Omar Radi, you are returning now to Morocco. You’re in London for a few days. Why return? I mean, you then go to face a trial, and you could be in prison for up to a year. Why not just stay out, remain? Why not just stay out, go into exile?

OMAR RADI: No, it has never been an option for me. I live in Morocco, and where I feel good and also where I fight for a better Morocco. And it makes sense for me to stay there. Prosecution is not a reason to leave the country and find exile elsewhere. Other people done this, but, for me, it’s not really an option. So, yeah, I think there are struggles to be done and to be made in Morocco, and I want to be part of it, struggles for freedom of expression but also for freedom of organizing people and the freedom of people. And our first struggle now is to release the rest of the prisoners.

AMY GOODMAN: Omar Radi, I want to thank you for being with us, award-winning investigative journalist, Moroccan human rights defender, member of the association Attac Maroc, working on human rights movements and social justice in Morocco, detained in Casablanca in late December for what the state said was an insult to a judge in a tweet that Omar Radi sent out six months prior, questioning his having activists imprisoned. Omar Radi’s next hearing is March 5th. This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman. Thanks so much for joining us.

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