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“They Have No Evidence”: Moroccan Journalist Omar Radi Jailed, Surveilled After Criticizing Gov’t

StoryAugust 03, 2020
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Image Credit: Youssef Boudlal/Reuters

Editor’s Note on July 19, 2021: Moroccan journalist Omar Radi has been sentenced to six years in prison after what Amnesty International calls an “unfair trial.” Radi was one of the journalists and activists targeted by Pegasus spyware, as was recently exposed by Amnesty International and a consortium of journalists.

Award-winning journalist and human rights activist Omar Radi spoke to us from Casablanca on July 16. Two weeks later, on July 29, last Wednesday, Moroccan authorities arrested him on what press freedom advocates call “retaliatory charges.” Now a court has charged Radi with undermining state security by receiving foreign funding and collaborating with foreign intelligence, and also charged him with rape. He is reportedly being held in a prison that is a COVID hot spot, and has not been allowed to have visits from his lawyer or his parents. We feature our interview with Radi, which focuses in part on an Amnesty International report, published about one month before his arrest, that alleges Moroccan authorities hacked his phone using Pegasus spyware from the Israeli company NSO Group.

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Web ExclusiveFeb 26, 2020Meet Omar Radi, the Moroccan Journalist Who Was Jailed for a Single Tweet & Faces Trial on March 5
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman. We turn to Morocco, where authorities have arrested the award-winning journalist, human rights activist Omar Radi on what press freedom advocates are calling “retaliatory charges.” Omar Radi reported on the role of the Moroccan state and big business in dispossessing farmers of their tribal lands. He’s spoken out about facing harassment and surveillance.

He was arrested on Wednesday, July 29th, just over one month after he was the focus of an Amnesty International report that alleged Moroccan authorities hacked Radi’s phone using Pegasus spyware from the Israeli company NSO Group. Now a court has charged him with undermining state security by receiving foreign funding and collaborating with foreign intelligence. The court also just charged him with rape.

The Committee to Protect Journalists issued a statement that, quote, “Moroccan authorities in the past have plainly tried to make any charge against him stick in retaliation for his work as a journalist.” CPJ called on them to release Radi and investigate any sexual assault charges in a “credible and transparent manner,” unquote.

Omar Radi’s lawyers deny all the charges against him. He’s reportedly being held in a prison in Casablanca that’s a COVID hot spot, and has not been allowed any visitors, not even his lawyer or his parents. His next court hearing is scheduled for September 22nd.

I spoke with Omar Radi, before his arrest and the latest charges, on July 16th, when he was being taken in several times a week for questioning, and asked him to explain what was happening.

OMAR RADI: First, it all started by a media harassment, by pro-state media, that started leaking my private information and also saying fake news about me and insulting me, my family, my colleagues and my friends, with a lot of fake news but also with real news — my bank information, for example — that only state officials can access to them. So, this harassment campaign accused me of been working — of having worked for intelligence agencies, especially U.S. and British intelligence agencies.

And, surprise, June 22, June 22nd, Amnesty International released its report about me being spied on by Moroccan authorities using the Pegasus virus. [June] 23, the next day, the prosecutor, the general prosecutor of Casablanca, ordered the National Brigade of Judicial Police to investigate with me on the basis of the same information that has been leaked on this pro-state media about me having been a spy for — I don’t know what country. So, 24, I got the police summons, and, 25, I had my first hearing by the national — the political police in Morocco.

And it continued, and now I’m one out of two days at their offices answering ridiculous and surrealistic questions, such as, “You have met with the spokesperson or a diplomat from the Dutch Embassy. What kind of intelligence services were you providing him?” And without any evidence — they don’t face me with any evidence. They just ask me questions like that, that are empty questions. And they want me to confess something I didn’t know. And now it looks like harassment, and everybody in Morocco knows it is a judicial harassment for what happened with Amnesty.

AMY GOODMAN: So, let me step back for a moment. Omar, can you talk about your work as a journalist, the kind of stories that you do?

OMAR RADI: Yeah. This year I worked a lot on land dispossession, because in Morocco we have collective land ownership, and the tribal lands are very, very, very, very large in Morocco, and the state is trying to get these lands and to inject them into the market. And there is a lot of injustice in these policies, because people are not compensated well, and these lands are revaluated very highly, and its all benefits to the big capital in Morocco actually. So I work on land grabbing, land dispossessions. I also work on finance sectors and the relationship between the power and business in Morocco. That’s my framework, and also human rights.

AMY GOODMAN: And so, then explain what this Pegasus program is, how you believe — I mean, the government in Morocco has access to your bank accounts and other information. But what happened to your phone?

OMAR RADI: Pegasus is a quite silent program. You don’t feel it, actually. And it’s not a persistent program. It doesn’t stay in your phone or in your computer. It works using a network injection, so people need to be near you to make themselves pass as a relay antenna. And your phone is connected to a fake relay antenna, and then the network injection works, and then the program works, and they get — I don’t know. It has a lot of features. It can use your microphone, it can use your keyboard, it can use your screen, and get any information that is stored in your phone.

So, I don’t know the amount of information they’ve stolen from my phone. But I’m sure, in this pro-medias — pro-state medias, they published many information that I have exchanged even in Signal, which is known that is a very safe program. So I have evidence that my own conversations have been leaked to pro-state media, the same that are leaking also my bank information.

AMY GOODMAN: And can you talk about what happened specifically when the Amnesty report came out, the significance of what they said — it very much focused on your case — and then what the Moroccan government said to you when they started calling you in for these interrogations? And what have you been charged with?

OMAR RADI: In the police, they don’t talk about the Amnesty report. The government said — in a public statement, an official statement, the head of the Moroccan diplomacy said that I have been used as a pawn by Amnesty International to harass Morocco, that is a democracy, and that I, myself, I have ties with an agent, liaison agent, from another country.

And this was really serious because it’s the government, in person, who is threatening me and accusing me of all this, while I’m just — I was the victim here, and I was the person who has been spied on. The least I wanted from the government is to launch an investigation about what was happening. And I was even OK to give them my phone to audit it. But I have been — the next day, I have been attacked and aggressed and accused of treason and many other insults that tried to discredit me with the public opinion.

AMY GOODMAN: Omar, if you’re charged with treason, could you face the death penalty in Morocco?

OMAR RADI: The criminal code, the articles, yeah. It’s large, and I don’t know. I think they have no evidence against me and this is an empty case. But if they want to charge me, I can go from one year, five years of prison, to death penalty. But I think it’s unlikely. This is not really serious, because I can’t — they cannot — the state cannot consider that — I’m an individual — I’m in a war against all the institutions. I’m not in confrontation with the state. I’m an individual that needs to do his journalism in a safe way, and people let me do it in peace and also to let me express myself as I want to. I’m not in a war against anybody. And the state thinks that I’m going in a war. This is surrealistic. And yeah, I don’t know.

AMY GOODMAN: Are you worried about the people around you, closest to you? Can you talk about who they are attacking and revealing who are your friends, your colleagues, who you live with?

OMAR RADI: Yeah. The very last surprise, for example, was that my father’s phone calls have been transcripted in this pro-state thug medias. So even my father has been —

AMY GOODMAN: Wait a second. You father — transcripts of your father’s conversations are printed in the Moroccan media?

OMAR RADI: Phone calls, yeah, yeah. So, now even my father is, his phone taped. So, this is crazy. This has taken proportions that are incredible.

AMY GOODMAN: So, let’s talk about when all of this happened. The Amnesty report says forensic artifacts that Amnesty International extracted from your phone suggest that the Pegasus network injection attacks occurred on January 27th, February 11th and the 13th of September, 2019.

OMAR RADI: Yeah, yeah. This is what they found, because the virus makes disappear its fingerprints. So it’s hard to find all the traces of the active virus, actually.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, we spoke to you in March. Shortly after we first spoke with you, you were given a suspended four-month prison term for a tweet that you put out in 2019 about the jailing of a group of activists. What were you tweeting about?

OMAR RADI: They were this strong social movement in the north of Morocco, the Hirak of the Rif. And its leaders were asking for hospitals, jobs, job opportunities and public services. And they ended up jailed, some of them for 20 years of jail, of being accused, like I’m accused now, of jeopardizing national security. And I tweeted about this judge. And I said, “We will never forget about all these people with no dignity.” And I have been accused of outrage to a judge and sentenced to four months suspended. And I went to the appeals. I’m still waiting for the appeals date.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you assume you are always being surveilled, Omar?

OMAR RADI: Yeah. I have evidence about that, actually, because the police showed me that I was — they were surveilling my phones and my calls and my SMS messages since 2011. The investigation with the police went back until 2011. So they knew who I was talking to, who I was texting, who was texting me, who was calling me, etc. It’s not a speculation. It’s not supposition. I am now sure that I have been surveilled by the state.

And the state in Morocco has a good track record of acquiring these kind of tools. Hacking Team, FinFisher, BAE Systems, Morocco is a customer and bought, and we have the proofs and the evidence that Morocco have paid more than $3 million, for example, to Hacking Team, the Italian company, for its virus remote control system, RCS.

AMY GOODMAN: Omar Radi, how is the Moroccan media covering what’s happening to you? What are other journalists saying? Is civil society rallying around you?

OMAR RADI: Yeah, civil society is rallying around me. And I think the public opinion is very, very — showed a lot of solidarity, as well as the Moroccans living abroad and many other NGOs on the international level. Medias also are, yeah, precautiously covering the facts of what’s happening, and waiting to see the next steps — except the pro-state media and what I call the thugs that are working as journalists for the state, that are — they already sentenced me. They already called me “this spy,” “the traitor,” etc. Those media are in their role, I think. They’re just functioning as state thugs.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you think that the Moroccan government is using you, Omar Radi, as an example, a warning to other journalists not to do the kind of corporate and state investigations that you do?

OMAR RADI: I think what we’ve done with many other journalists in the past has upset the state. And the state, in its strategy towards the media, decided not to make this happen again and not to make it repeat again and not to make this kind of journalism exist. So, yes, I think that it’s also — it’s revenge, actually. And it’s a very fast reaction after the Amnesty report. But also, it has this function to make people afraid by this kind of courage, of this kind of journalism, this kind of people who speak out and who call out against injustice, etc. I think this is considered as dangerous by the state.

AMY GOODMAN: The first Amnesty report showed examples of this Pegasus software injected into other journalists’ phones, documenting, surveilling, spying on everything they were doing. What advice do you have to working journalists?

OMAR RADI: Yeah, we cannot have the means of states and huge companies, huge defense, cyberdefense companies. I think the best thing to do is to get a lot of precautions, not to use the phone if it’s not necessary, if we can do the things physically, etc. Protecting sources as journalists is very, very important, because one of the purposes of the surveillance is to access, to map your network. And using the latest security software and anonymity connections, I think this is very, very important.

AMY GOODMAN: And, Omar, does it make sources afraid to talk to you? You are a targeted journalist. Has anything happened to people you spoke to for your stories?

OMAR RADI: I didn’t try to call them yet, because I’m always in the police offices. I need to go back to my work. So, I hope to see what’s happening after all this nightmare is over.

AMY GOODMAN: We are speaking to you right before your sixth interrogation tomorrow. Are you concerned at any point, like tomorrow, you could be taken and not released?

OMAR RADI: Everything is possible, actually. It’s not excluded. But if they arrest me, they have to show material evidence, which they don’t have, so it would be an abusive arrest. And my lawyers are aware of all that, and I gave all evidence and all the proofs of my innocence to my lawyers, and all my partners to journalists, etc.

So, I’m not afraid. I’ll go there. I stopped answering their questions, and I stopped signing their reports since yesterday, and I’m not doing it again. So I stopped cooperating with the police because they’re asking empty questions and questions that don’t respect the presumption of innocence. So I’m not playing this game. If they have something, they just arrest me and send me to the prosecutor and then to trial, but I’m not playing this Q&A game with the police, that just want me to confess that I was something I never was. So, I took this very hard decision, not — keeping silent and not signing any testimonies or confessions.

AMY GOODMAN: You said you’ve made this decision to keep silent?

OMAR RADI: Yes, yes. I’m not cooperating with the Moroccan police.

AMY GOODMAN: Award-winning journalist and human rights activist Omar Radi, speaking to us from Casablanca, Morocco, July 16th. Two weeks later, on July 29th, last Wednesday, Moroccan authorities arrested him. He’s reportedly being held in a Casablanca prison that’s a COVID hot spot, and has not been allowed to have visits from his lawyer or his parents. We’ll link to the Amnesty International report that alleges Moroccan authorities hacked Radi’s phone using Pegasus spyware from the Israeli company NSO Group.

And that does it for our show. I’m Amy Goodman. This is Democracy Now! Stay safe. Save lives. Wear a mask.

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

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