A Moroccan court has handed a 12 year prison sentence to a newspaper publisher charged with sexual assault, in a trial his lawyers said was politically motivated.The Casablanca court had found Taoufiq Bouachrine guilty of human trafficking, abuse of power for sexual purposes, rape and attempted rape.
The publisher, sentenced late Friday, has maintained his innocence throughout.He was arrested in February at the offices of his independent Arabic-language daily newspaper Akhbar Al-Yaum, known for editorials and cartoons critical of the authorities.
On Friday, defence lawyer Mohamed Ziane told AFP Bouachrine had been the “victim of a political trial” because of his writings.”In the Arab world, we still don’t understand the meaning of press freedom,” Ziane said.
Bouachrine has been critical of public figures including billionaire agriculture minister Aziz Akhannouch and the North African kingdom’s ally, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
Another member of his defence team, Abdelmoula El Marouri, cited government sources saying the Saudi embassy in Rabat had raised an official complaint over two of the publisher’s editorials.
But prosecution lawyer Mohammed Karout called the trial “a criminal case, with facts and victims”.
“There is no relationship between expressing political positions and committing sexual assault,” he said.
Rape trials are rare in Morocco, where victims fear social repercussions in a society that remains largely conservative.
History of run-ins
The court ordered Bouachrine to pay the plaintiffs compensation ranging from 100,000 to 500,000 dirhams ($10,000 to $52,000).
Karout said his team would appeal for more due to the gravity of the offences.
The charges against Bouachrine were based on complaints, testimonies and about 50 videos seized from his office, purporting to show him in a variety of sexual acts.
Bouachrine’s defence team said the videos were faked and in any case showed “consensual relations”.
Experts consulted during the trial said they were genuine.
During the course of the trial, four women cited by the prosecution as “victims” denied involvement.
One was sentenced to six months in prison for accusing the police of falsifying her statement, while others refused to appear in court.
In the end, eight of the 15 plaintiffs originally named by the prosecution were recognised as victims and compensated, according to their lawyers.
Taoufik Bouachrine and his newspaper have a history of run-ins with the authorities.
In 2009 the paper was shut down over cartoons satirising the monarchy.
He and cartoonist Khaled Gueddar were each given a four-year suspended prison sentence and ordered to pay heavy fines and damages.
Bouachrine has also faced lawsuits from government ministers who have accused him of defamation.
And in June 2010, he was sentenced to six months for fraud relating to a property deal.
Media watchdog Reporters Without Borders (RSF) ranked Morocco 133rd out of 180 countries in its World Press Freedom Index last year.