Despite journalist’s royal pardon, Morocco is far from legalising abortion

Under the weight of international pressure, Morocco’s monarchy on Wednesday granted journalist Hajar Raissouni a pardon after she was sentenced to a year in prison over allegations of illegal abortion and extra-marital sex. Professor Aboubakr Jamaï spoke to FRANCE 24 on whether her victory could spur social change.

Hajar Raissouni, 28, was sentenced to one year in prison late September on charges of "illegal abortion" and "sexual relations outside marriage”. She was sentenced along with her fiancé Rifaat al-Amin and doctor Mohammed Jamal Belkeziz, both for alleged complicity, in a case she denounced as a “political trial”.

Morocco’s King Mohamed VI pardoned all three on Wednesday, October 16 following protests and international calls for Raissouni’s release.

The decision to grant a royal pardon was motivated by the monarchy's "compassion" and "concern" to "preserve the future of the engaged couple who intended to start a family in line with religious precepts and the law, despite the error they allegedly made", the Ministry of Justice declared in a statement.

While human rights activists welcomed the pardon, it offers little assurance, if any, that the ruling regime is ready to expand women’s rights and freedom of expression, says Aboubakr Jamaï, a professor at the American University Institute in Aix-en-Provence and a former director of the weekly newspapers Le Journal and Assahifa Al-Ousbouiya in Casabalanca.

FRANCE 24: The king pardoned Raissouni, as well as her fiancé, a doctor and two of her colleagues. But can we call the outcome a victory?

Aboubakr Jamaï: Yes and no. From a humanitarian standpoint, it’s no doubt a victory. We can be pleased they’ve been released but essentially it’s a response to international pressure. This case struck a chord and put the monarchy in a delicate position.  All those who condemned the arrest in the press, such as the signatories of an online petition launched by Leïla Slimani, contributed to this victory. To say that after this, abortion will be legalised in the coming days seems to me anything but assured.

What this case has demonstrated is the importance of the impact of the media. One of the characteristics of the Moroccan regime is that it only operates under pressure. There have been similar cases in the past but unfortunately they’ve not had the same impact and for the most part they’ve led to grossly unfair trials.

Could this case accelerate changes to the law to legalise abortion in Morocco?

One thing is certain: it’s not a pardon that will lead to the decriminalisation of abortion. What is likely to have an impact is, of course, the level of media coverage given to the case and the degree of awareness among Moroccans of the law, which is clearly problematic. The debate around abortion is not new. The issue had been discussed during the vote on the Constitution in 2011 but was not considered a priority. The issue was not on the agenda.

Until now, those who had been arrested for illegal abortions were not part of an elite. The police were not targeting the Casablanca bourgeoisie, but rather women from working class neighbourhoods who had no real voice.

As a result, the way the law was applied was never considered a problem since there were no media reports and therefore fewer protests around those cases. But the Hajar Raissouni case marked a shift. Its impact has placed the issue of abortion at the heart of public debate.

The monarchy is subject to 'political' constraints: it does not want to take the risk of antagonising its conservative support base. The kingdom is in an almost dichotomous position. Morocco has not enshrined freedom of religious expression in its constitution, unlike, for example, Tunisia, which cannot interfere in the religious practices of its citizens.

The Moroccan monarchy does not want to head down this path. As "commander of the faithful", the King cannot allow them to no longer be believers, otherwise who will he command? Basically, then, it’s not because Mohammed VI doesn’t want to move in the direction of societal reform, but rather because it wouldn’t benefit him politically.

Can you elaborate on what you mean by this?

In my view, there was a kind of deviation of the law in this case. Let us be clear, the law against abortion is a deplorable law that must be scrapped. Moreover, it’s used against the opposition. So when the king issues a pardon, what does it do? It lets the police and the judiciary off the hook.

If Morocco were a democratic country, there would have been an inquiry into this arrest. We would have seen why the investigation’s procedures for due process were flouted and the extent to which the journalist's rights were violated. Let’s not forget, she was forced to go to a gynaecologist to be examined, which legally amounts to a breach of her rights.

In this case, the institutions of authoritarianism – the judiciary, the military and the police – have come out of this unblemished. Yet, they didn’t abide by the law – they violated a journalist’s human rights because she was challenging the authorities. Those responsible for applying Moroccan law are apparently above it. In short, it’s crucial that we debate the law, but this is not enough as the police and the judiciary are instruments of repression answerable to those in power.

This article is an adaptation of the original in French.