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Investigating government land rights abuses in Morocco can land you in jail – and charged with sexual assault

Moroccan investigative journalist and human rights activist Omar Radi. (Photo: Flickr / Internaz / Francesco Alesi)

Moroccan investigative journalist Omar Radi, charged with espionage, says counter-espionage agents accused him of spying for South Africa. Radi says it’s all just a cover and the Moroccan government is really just retaliating against him for his embarrassing exposés of corrupt land deals implicating powerful politicians and business people. He faces years in jail if convicted.

Award-winning Moroccan investigative journalist Omar Radi has been charged with espionage and jailed. Morocco’s counter-intelligence authorities have interrogated him about spying for South Africa and other countries. He says it’s all just a cover and the Moroccan government is just retaliating against him for his embarrassing exposés of corrupt land deals implicating powerful politicians and business people. He faces years in jail if convicted. 

Radi, 29, who has had several run-ins with the Moroccan authorities over the years because of his investigative journalism, has been in detention in Casablanca since 29 July this year, charged by a court for undermining state security by receiving foreign funding and collaborating with foreign intelligence. He was also charged with rape.

Moroccan authorities have not told him which foreign intelligence agencies he is being accused of collaborating with, he has said. But Radi has said they have questioned him about his dealings with the US, UK and the Dutch.

And the investigators have also suggested that he has passed information to South Africa – a country with which Morocco has rather strained relations because of differences over the Western Sahara issue.

Omar Radi (second from left) among other Bertha Challenge fellows at a Bertha Foundation event in Britain, in July 2019. Others are (from left) Maeve McClenaghan, of the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, UK, Dr Monica Mhoja of Tanzania and Sotiris Sideris, a Greek journalist. (Photo: Bertha Foundation)

Radi received a year-long fellowship and a grant from the Bertha Foundation to investigate land expropriations in Morocco. 

The Bertha Foundation is run by Tony Tabatznik, who was born in South Africa but later moved to Britain where he became a British citizen some 40 years ago. His foundation is registered in Geneva. The Bertha Foundation’s Bertha Challenge grants fellowships to investigative journalists and activists to examine a different social-justice issue each year. Its 2019 topic was land and housing justice. The co-director for the Bertha Challenges investigative journalism arm is South African journalist Pearlie Joubert. 

These two South African connections seem to have aroused the suspicions of the Moroccans – or perhaps just given them a pretext for suspicion. 

Shortly before he was arrested, Radi wrote to Joubert to say that two officers of the National Brigade of the Judicial Police (BNPJ) – which he describes as the Moroccan FBI – had questioned him in their offices on 25 June. One of them was chief of the Judicial Intelligence brigade – the head of counter-espionage. 

“He used my bank information to ask me about some amounts that have been wired from abroad. Some consulting work I did in 2018 and early 2019 (small amounts of $400 and $1400) and the journalism grant from Bertha which was the most important part of the interrogation. 

“The officer insisted on the relation between Bertha and South Africa through Pearlie and Tony. Their argument is: if you received money and didn’t publish any work, this means that you sold intelligence information to foreign organisations, that are in their turn, interfaces to intelligence agencies.”

Radi said he had told his interrogators that the results of his investigation were about to be published at the end of June and that their interrogation was “part of a wider harassment that I’m subjected to, including press articles, phone and computer spying, and also the fact that I have cops all the time in front of my place, and others following me everywhere I go.”

Joubert said there had been delays – due to the Covid-19 pandemic – in the publication of the work of several of the journalists who had received Bertha Challenge fellowships to investigate land issues. (Other recipients are from Kenya, Nepal, Greece, Nigeria, Britain, El Salvador and Ireland.) 

She also notes that the pro-state Moroccan media have publicly picked up the accusations against Radi, including Chouf TV which accused the Bertha Foundation of acting as a front for British intelligence agency MI6. After the foundation protested, Chouf TV aired its letter denying any connection to MI6.

Joubert added that the suggestion that the Bertha Foundation “with a decade-long history of supporting social justice movements, media institutions, human rights organisations and documentary films” is somehow involved in espionage for the UK or South African governments, is “ridiculous”.

“Radi is an excellent investigative journalist. He was doing the work of a journalist during his fellowship and was a valued colleague to the cohort.”

Radi was arrested for the first time in October 2017 and held in police custody for 48 hours after he directed a documentary about the Hirak protest movement which erupted in Al Hoceima on the Mediterranean coast the year before, after Mohsen Fikri, a fish seller, had been crushed in a garbage dumpster by police while trying to oppose the seizure of his merchandise. 

On 26 December 2019, Omar was jailed and held for six days on charges of posting a Tweet insulting appeals court judge Lahcen Tolfi, who had issued harsh sentences against Hirak protestors. Radi’s arrest received extensive international media attention and sparked widespread protests around the world, especially by Bertha Foundation fellows.

On 17 March 2020, a Casablanca court gave Radi a suspended four-month sentence and a fine of 500 dirhams (about $50) for his single Tweet about Tolfi. Though the sentences were not immense, they gave him a criminal record, which is a serious liability in Morocco. 

In an interview with the Bertha Foundation about his research and investigations during the year, Radi said the real reason for his prosecution and sentence was not the tweet but because he had spoken “about economic predation in Morocco. Also the state capture model of the economy. And I think this is the reason I upset the Moroccan establishment. Working on land in these times is very sensitive in Morocco. And it’s a lot of interests and deals I am touching…”

Radi said the aim of his Bertha Challenge fellowship was to investigate land rights abuses under Morocco’s Land Expropriation Act. In Morocco, about 5-million hectares of land is owned collectively as tribal land. Radi’s research has shown that 2,470 parcels of land have been expropriated over the past 30 years through this legislation. 

“In the last decade they used this tool to take land for free, practically free, to give them to the private sector to inject them to the market circuit,” he said. 

He highlighted one case where about 300 families of the Oued Sbita tribe lost their land when it was expropriated by the government and acquired by Addoha group for a golf course development.

“What happens to all the people living on this land?”, Radi asked. “There is no public programme for these people who are kicked off the land, making them automatically poor. And also their way of life, farming etc that they have to forget because they have to go and live on the peripheries of the cities.”

It is not clear yet exactly what Radi will reveal in his report on his investigation of land abuse – or whether he will be able to report it at all since he now faces the possibility of a long prison term on the espionage and rape charges levelled against him.

But before his arrest, he had hinted at the involvement of Morocco’s head of state King Mohamed VI, who Radi said was a “very, very big businessman. He owns the First Bank in Morocco, the biggest insurers, he owns 99% of the mining sector. He’s a very big real estate investor that much … desires to get some investment in the economy. There is a lot of conflict of interest. That’s what I’ve worked on for years.”

King Mohamed VI’s net worth is estimated at around US$2.1-billion. 

Radi told the network Democracy Now! that in his investigation for the Bertha Foundation he had found that some landowners were paid only 25 dirhams (roughly $3) per square metre for expropriated land that was later resold for as much as 600 times the price.

His previous work has also probed elite favouritism in the allocation of land and business rights. In 2013 he had reported that concessions to exploit sand quarries, a highly regulated sector requiring government approval, had been given by palace authorities to local politicians or party heads. He won the IMS-AMJI investigative journalism prize for this exposé.

In 2016, he reported that expensive land had been offered as gifts to high-level individuals close to the state.

And Radi also believes the state is retaliating against him because of the bad international publicity it has received around his case. The June 2020 interrogations began days after Amnesty International released a report that said Moroccan authorities had used highly sophisticated Pegasus spying netware bought from the Israeli NSO company, to hack his phone. 

Radi claims the rape charges laid against him this year are part of the harassment by the state. The alleged victim, a public servant, laid the rape charges some two weeks after what he has said was a consensual relationship. The Moroccan journalist Afaf Bernani – now living in exile in Tunisia – has written that Radi is among several independent journalists whom the Moroccan government has accused of sexual assault. 

“There is good reason to believe that such allegations are being exploited for political purposes,” she wrote in the Washington Post last month. She based this suspicion on her own experience of having been “aggressively pressured” by Moroccan police interrogators in February 2018 to confess that she had been sexually assaulted by Taoufik Bouachrine, a journalist and the editor-in-chief of the independent daily newspaper Akhbar al-Yaoum – which she denied. 

The journal Forbidden Stories believes that the treatment of Radi is in line with a new, more subtle approach to media critics and human rights defenders. “Before, a journalist would have been arrested for what he wrote,” it quoted Bouziane Zaid, a professor of communications at the University of Sharjah in the United Arab Emirates and an expert on Moroccan media, as saying. “Now they arrest journalists for other motives that have nothing to do with journalism.”

Amnesty has counted at least 10 activists and journalists who have been illegally detained and tried since November 2019 – all of whom, like Radi, were held in contempt of government functionaries, public institutions or the monarchy, Forbidden Stories said. 

The Committee to Protect Journalists has issued a statement that “Moroccan authorities in the past have plainly tried to make any charge against him stick in retaliation for his work as a journalist,” and called on them to “release Radi [and] investigate any sexual assault charges in a credible and transparent manner.” Radi’s lawyers deny all the charges against him. He is reportedly being held in a prison in Casablanca that is a Covid-19 hot spot.

A Moroccan official – who did not wish to be identified because he said the case was in the hands of the justice authorities – told Daily Maverick that the legal proceedings initiated against Radi “bear no relation to his status as a journalist or to the right to freedom of expression as guaranteed by the Moroccan constitution. 

“Omar Radi freely exercises his profession as a journalist. As such, he has never been questioned or interrogated in any way whatsoever in the context of his work or activities, or even his public positions.”

The state rejected his “allegations of intimidation and judicial harassment, following the initiation of legal proceedings against him either by the Public Prosecutor’s Office or by private individuals.”

The official insisted that the judiciary was independent and that in the “common law cases” involving Radi, it was up to the Moroccan justice system to guarantee the rights of all parties free of outside influence, in accord with the law “and in strict compliance with the principles of presumption of innocence and confidentiality of the investigation.”

He rejected the suggestion of state involvement in the alleged denigration of Omar Radi by some national media, saying that the contents of their articles were their own responsibility. He added that Morocco had asked Amnesty International to provide evidence to support its allegations that Rabat used spyware to bug Radi’s phone. 

Amnesty had provided no “tangible evidence” and without this proof the allegations amounted to “an unjust international defamation campaign dictated by an agenda having nothing to do with human rights.”

In response Amna Guellali, Amnesty International’s Deputy Director for the Middle East and North Africa, told Daily Maverick that Amnesty International had in fact responded to the Moroccan government via an official letter, explaining its findings and methodology. 

The letter says, among other things, that: “Amnesty International conducted a forensic analysis of Omar Radi’s iPhone – spending hours inspecting the content of the device and identifying technical anomalies. The organisation uncovered evidence demonstrating Omar was targeted throughout 2019 and until end of January 2020, close to his arrest date, with advanced cyber-attacks aimed at infecting the smartphone with Pegasus spyware, produced by Israeli company NSO Group.”

The letter noted that NSO, by its own acknowledgement, only provided Pegasus spyware to government intelligence and law enforcement agencies and so it had to have been the Moroccan government which bugged Radi’s phone. Amnesty International’s letter is available here. DM

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