Mohamed Ziane and Soulaiman Raissouni sit facing each other in an office. Both are laughing.

Morocco: Denying imprisoned academics and journalists access to read and write violates their right to freedom of expression

At least four journalists and one academic have been denied the right to read and write in Moroccan prisons, Amnesty International said today, as the world observes World Press Freedom Day.

According to the United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners, also known as the Mandela rules, prisoners should be allowed to read and work, to regularly have access to newspapers or the radio and access to a library. Prisoners in pre-trial detention should also be able to buy books, newspapers and writing materials.

“The Moroccan authorities have long targeted dissenting writers and journalists with arrest and today is a day to remember all those imprisoned for their writing. To deprive imprisoned journalists of pens and paper is punitive, unnecessary and a deliberate attack on their freedom of expression,” said Rawya Rageh, Amnesty International’s Interim Deputy Director for the Middle East and North Africa.

“This World Press Freedom Day, we call on the Moroccan authorities to end this cruelty against journalists and academics. They must release journalists and academics who were imprisoned solely for exercising their right to freedom of expression and ensure that access to newspapers, books and writing materials for prisoners is not arbitrarily restricted.”

‘To kill an intellectual, you isolate them’

Rida Benotmane, a writer and member of the Moroccan Association for the Defence of Human Rights (AMDH), has been held in prolonged solitary confinement in Arjate 1 prison since September 2022. He is accused of bogus charges that stem solely from exercising his right to freedom of expression.

Since the start of his detention, Rida Benotmane, 46, has been forbidden so much as a pen to write with. A family member said that all books pass through an arbitrary censoring process by the prison authorities, who only permit some books to reach Rida. He said that in Moroccan prisons “anything goes: from humiliation of visitors to the prohibition of simple things like a Bic pen to write with.” He added: “Anything political is forbidden” giving the example that prison officials had rejected one book because it had the word “Kabul” in the title, illustrating how arbitrary their decisions were.  

To deprive imprisoned journalists of pens and paper is punitive, unnecessary and a deliberate attack on their freedom of expression.

Rawya Rageh, Amnesty International

Mohamed Ziane, 80, a human rights lawyer, academic and former Minister for Human Rights in Morocco, was imprisoned on 21 November 2022, after the Rabat court of appeal confirmed in absentia a three-year prison sentence for 11 unrelated charges, including bogus charges of insulting public officials, as well as a charge of sexual assault. He has been held in solitary confinement, denied access to newspapers and banned from writing to his lawyer.

Mohamed’s son and lawyer told Amnesty International that prison officials had told him that they moved Mohamed from Arjate 2 to Arjate 1 prison “to put him in an isolation cell. They often do that with intellectuals, it is a form of torture. To kill an intellectual, you… isolate [them] so that [they] cannot communicate with other people.”

Writing and studying forbidden

Taoufik Bouachrine, 54, a journalist and publisher of one of Morocco’s last opposition newspapers, Akhbar el-Youm, is being held in solitary confinement while serving a 15-year sentence for sexual assault, having already completed five years.

Initially Taoufik Bouachrine was able to keep a journal and was writing a book and studying for a PhD in law. However, when he was transferred from Ain Borja to Arjate 2 prison in May 2023, prison authorities confiscated his manuscript and notes. Now, prison authorities permit Taoufik a pen and paper to write, but a source close to his family said that since the confiscation of his manuscript, “he has had [writer’s] block, out of fear that his work would be taken away again.  

Omar Radi, an investigative journalist and vocal critic of the government’s human rights record, is forbidden from writing and is denied the letters that friends and family send him. He has also been prohibited from studying for a master’s degree. Anything he does write, says his father, is “immediately destroyed by the prison guards.” On 6 July 2021, Omar was sentenced to six years in prison on charges of rape and espionage, after a grossly unfair trial.

Between July 2020 and April 2022, Omar Radi was held in the same part of Oukacha prison as his fellow journalist Soulaiman Raissouni.

Soulaiman Raissouni, 54, was editor-in-chief of Akhbar el-Yaoum when he was convicted in June 2020 on charges of sexual assault. Authorities placed both men in prolonged solitary confinement but they managed to communicate between a hole in the wall. A source told Amnesty International that Soulaiman and Omar agreed to write letters to each other each Sunday, with the intention of eventually turning them into a book. They called that “the Sunday letters”. However, prison guards overheard Soulaiman talking about the idea with someone on the phone and, the following day, guards confiscated all the letters the two men had written each other.

When Soulaiman was transferred to Ain Borja prison in May 2022, prison guards confiscated the novel he had been writing since the end of 2021, after much negotiation with the prison administration to permit him pens and paper. The guards also destroyed all his notes and his journal. From that day, Soulaiman took a vow of silence for 10 months in protest of this cruel and arbitrary act against him.

This World Press Freedom Day, we call on the Moroccan authorities to end this cruelty against journalists and academics.

Rawya Rageh, Amnesty International