Omar Radi: Martyred in Morocco’s culling of the free press

Omar radi
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Journalists being silenced and arrested on trumped-up charges isn’t doing Morocco any favours on the world stage but bombing its human rights record and stifling foreign investment. Yet does this policy have the king’s blessing, or have the security services outgrown the business elite which once controlled them? In a rare interview with Omar Radi’s family, Maghrebi discovered a grim truth: the journalist appears to be being tortured in jail and may not survive his final years behind bars. Is Morocco’s security chief staging a palace coup, edging the country towards becoming a failed state that London, Paris, and Washington can no longer recognize nor influence?

 

To the outsider, Morocco appears to be a North African wunderkind; a bustling and cosmopolitan tourist hotspot where Europe’s middle class increasingly flocks to escape the mundane. The kingdom has witnessed levels of stability rare across the Arab world, emerging from 2011’s Arab Spring relatively unscathed and becoming a key player in regional geopolitics, trade, culture, and sport in recent years. Above all, Morocco more than welcomes the free-spirited and hedonistic in indulging their any desire.

Behind the hippy trail, however, the country is controlled by a feared and ruthless intelligence and security apparatus that has crept into the void left by its all but abdicated King Mohammed VI. In the reign of a potential shadow king, security chief Abdellatif Hammouchi, Morocco has seen the repression of all dissent, criticism, and accountability of the regime, with journalists persecuted on a totalitarian scale.

One such journalist, Omar Radi, made the error of reporting on the country’s endemic corruption and injustice at the hands of the Makhzen – a term used interchangeably to describe the web of royal court and government officials, as well as “deep state” business and political elites – finding himself discredited, threatened, and eventually imprisoned in 2020 on trumped-up espionage and rape charges.

Maghrebi met with Omar’s family to discuss his imprisonment and the gradual culling of the free press in Morocco.

 

Omar

Award-winning investigative reporter Omar Radi came to prominence in Morocco during the late 2010s with investigations focusing on human rights, state corruption, and the filching of tribal lands in Morocco’s northern Rif region by speculators. His investigation into the land grab broke the so-called “servants of the state” corruption scandal which exposed around 100 individuals, including high-level officials, who unscrupulously acquired state land at a fraction of its market value.

During an impassioned 2018 1D2C podcast appearance, Omar jested at the king’s absence,derided the interior minister, and explicitly called Morocco a “police state” that’s security apparatus had been given carte blanche by the palace.

Around this time, Morocco’s security services began a pervasive spying and defamation campaign against Omar by hacking his and his associates’ electronic devices and leaking all manner of personal information to the country’s pro-Makhzen press.

After a string of interrogations and detainments, Omar was arrested for the final time in July 2020, and later charged with “Endangering the Internal Security of the State with Financing from Abroad,” and two counts of Rape. He remains imprisoned to this day, in solitary confinement after having experienced a series of mistreatments and suspicious injuries while housed with the general prison population which begs the obvious question: Is Radi being tortured in prison?

READ:Moroccan journalists’ appeal denied, Radi Father’s call

When asked about Omar’s current condition, his brother Mehdi told Maghrebi: “[His] mindset is good, it is the […] mindset of someone who has been in solitary for quite some time but […] they moved him to another cell, with other cellmates and he didn’t like it.”

“We don’t have much detail about it but he had this incident, a funny incident […] What he told us was that he was playing [gestures an arm wrestling]” adding, “He broke his [shoulder], that’s what he told us.”

 “When [the police] went to see him at the hospital, they couldn’t talk much. So, this is the official version [of events].

Driss Radi, Omar’s father, interjected: “Now he’s good, mentally and physically. I mean, it’s no good to be in solitary confinement but he prefers that to being with other people.”

“He couldn’t go outside for breaks with the other inmates, he only went outside when [they] went back to their cells and he was monitored by guards whenever he went out.”

Driss (left) and Mehdi, his son right. Even their interview with Maghrebi was monitored by DST agents sitting nearby, such is the level of paranoia among the Rabat elite that Omar’s case might shake the foundations of their power.

 

 

Although not directly stated by the Radis, Omar’s injuries and averseness to being housed with the general prison population suggest a pattern of abuse.Omar currently has anything he writes confiscated and, despite the Radis’ stiff upper lip, it is apparent that his family are deeply concerned for his safety behind bars.

Of course, one can only imagine the incentives on offer to hardened inmates for teaching such a thorn in the regime’s side hard lessons while offering officials plausible deniability as to the torture of political prisoners, a crime outlawed in the UN Convention Against Torture.

The Radis expressed their belief that they are still monitored by police and security services, years after Omar’s imprisonment. This was made all the more convincing by the police awaiting us at our pre-arranged meeting place, frugally sipping Café au Lait with nothing much to talk about.

Maghrebi inquired as to whether there had been any further signs of Pegasus spyware “network injection” on the family’s or associates’ electronic devices, first outlined in a 2021 Amnesty International report.

Driss replied: “Yes, I suspect [so] but can’t prove it.”

Pegasus is a hacking software developed by Israel’s NSO group, which the Moroccan government is a client of, allowing the user to clandestinely assume full control of a victim’s device. Pegasus has embroiled regimes across the MENA region in myriad hacking scandals in recent years, including Morocco.

A joint 2021 investigation by Amnesty International and Forbidden Stories, a French non-profit press freedom group, revealed around 50,000 people to have been hacked using Pegasus globally.

READ:Spanish report exonerates Morocco from espionage claims

“There were other kinds of harassment,” Mehdi stated, “I am based in Paris and was back and forth to Morocco a few times [three years ago]. I was harassed at the airport. You know, when you go to the police at the airport, they tell you to go to some office and then, they just wait for you to get nervous.”

“And you know, this type of harassment,” alluding to the policemen who began taking photos of us from across the empty café.

“Even in Paris,” he added, “they were next to where I live. So, I guess I’m on their radar.”

The free press in Morocco has become suffocated in recent years, leaving those adjacent to power able to act with absolute impunity. As Mehdi put it, “anyone who dares” investigate and report on issues involving the Makhzen faces the very real threat of imprisonment or, at the very least, character assassination at the hands of the pro-Makhzen press.

 

The slow shift

Morocco’s shift towards such a degree of press censorship was not taken for granted in the early 2010s. On June 17th, 2011, the country’s King Mohammed VI announced the implementation of a new constitution, after a referendum held in reaction to the Arab Spring protest movement that swept the Middle East and North Africa, including Morocco, the same year.

“At the beginning […] there were good signs,” said Driss regarding the king succeeding his father Hassan II, and “even more good signs,” with his announcement of the country’s new constitution in 2011.

Guaranteeing all individuals and “public powers” as equal before the law, the “creation of the conditions permitting the effectiveness of liberty,” and most pertinently, the opposition’s freedom of opinion, expression, and assembly: one could forgive those like Omar Radi for, perhaps naively, pursuing justice and accountability in Moroccan affairs.

By 2013, however, “It began to change for the worst,” according to Driss, “a lot of [figures] started being harassed.” The powers that be were quietly rolling back on civil liberties and 2011’s constitutional guarantees while the security services began implementing a strategy of character assassination and in some cases imprisonment of opponents on trumped-up sexual assault, adultery, financial crimes, and espionage charges.

A revamped constitution which most Moroccans believed was genuine and would usher in a new era of freedoms announced in 2011 is believed by most now to have been disingenuous. At the time, Radi swallowed it and naively believed that his level of journalism holding the government’s corruption to account would be allowed under such moves.

In the examination of 12 court cases involving Moroccan dissidents, a 2022 Human Rights Watch investigation found that authorities had violated the rights of acquaintances, partners and families, as well as people who were allegedly victims of the individual on trial.

The report concluded that – having developed and refined an array of tactics to silence dissent while claiming to be enforcing criminal law – Morocco’s authorities had violated rights “including rights to privacy, health, physical safety, property, and the right to a fair trial,” while “making a mockery of serious crimes, such as rape, embezzlement, or espionage.”

2013 also saw protests erupt in Rabat over the case of Ennaama Asfari, an activist for Western Saharan independence who, after his 2010 arrest, was sentenced to 30 years imprisonment after alleged confession under torture at the hands of the security services, as reported by the BBC.

READ:Polisario Front claims responsibility for Western Sahara blast

The real shift, however, was seen in the way Morocco’s security services came to deal with the Hirak Rif protest movement in Morocco’s northern Rif Valley, from October 2016 to August 2017. In reaction to the death of fisherman Mohsin Fikri – who was crushed in a garbage disposal truck while trying to stop authorities from destroying his confiscated fish–thousands took to the streets in months of protest which led to violent clashes with the police and over 150 arrests.

“I think that’s where the Makhzen realised that they should be more violent,” said Mehdi, “a lot of people were arrested [with the leaders] sentenced to 20 years just for protesting.”

During this major “turning point” in state repression, Driss described the security services to have grown “to be very powerful” and to have gained “an outsized role”in Moroccan affairs. It was during this time that the security services locked on to journalists and activists, with a major case beginning to be built against Omar Radi.

With few journalists critical of the regime left working in Morocco, the authorities have turned their attention towards activists. On April 8th, a pro-Palestine activist who criticized Morocco’s Israel ties, via social media, was handed a five-year prison sentence. Abderrahmane Azenkad’s arrest was part of a wider crackdown on anti-Israel-normalization protesters since the Gaza war ignited on October 7th, 2023.

READ:Morocco: Pro-Palestinian activist handed 5-year jail sentence

“There have been a lot of protests recently on this [Gaza] matter, which went very peacefully,” said Driss, “the left-wing journalists are reporting on this and [are] doing a great job.”

“These journalists only write about Gaza, […] they don’t make the link with normalization […] it’s a no-go.”

Mehdi added that he doesn’t think the government has been “responsive to society criticizing normalization” with Tel Aviv. “That’s what always happens,” he said,“There are some political parties and NGOs who have been summoning the government about this but the government hasn’t responded yet. Because the government is not […] in charge, those matters are handled by the palace and the Makhzen.”

“As long as there is no [Gaza] ceasefire,” said Driss, “we’re going to have protests every weekend and, at some time, I guess the Makhzen will grow impatient and things can run amok.”

READ:Morocco: Casablanca rallies against Israeli ties

But what truly changed within the inner workings of the state in the 2010s? After all, security chief Abdellatif Hammouchi has held his position for two decades and the king, at least constitutionally, still calls the pivotal shots in Morocco to this day. However, both Mohamed VI’s habitual absence and Hammouchi’s growing prominence suggest an incremental but dramatic shift in the country’s governance, one which analysts might argue has got out of hand.

 

A shadow king?

From humble beginnings, Abdellatif Hammouchi rose to the position of head of Morocco’s General Directorate for National Security (DGSN) and General Directorate for Territorial Surveillance (DGST) in 1999, assuming the positions again in 2005 after a two-year hiatus in the wake of 2003’s Casablanca bombings.

According to a number of credible sources, Mr Hammouchi has presided over the widespread torture of detainees and the increasing state repression against dissidents by Morocco’s security services, to which Omar Radi fell victim. Perhaps Mr Hammouchi’s most enduring legacy, though, will be the method of character assassination used to deal with dissent, the stated character assassinations that have ostracised scores of journalists in recent years which, it should be pointed out, are also conducted with an army of on line so-called patriots who are happy to extend on social media platforms lies about those who are in the frame. Many, Maghrebi understands, are paid for their time spent on line.

READ:Moroccan blogger does jail time over minister drug ring slur

But there are other aspects to Mr Hammouchi’s work and his standing which raise even more salient questions about what is driving this individual and his zealous work.

The spy chief has also nurtured a personality cult on a scale unprecedented for someone other than a monarch in the country, leading to speculation as to whether he is the individual not only cracking the whip but holding the reigns in Moroccan governance.

Once where there were “armies” of online trolls to promote the head of state and attack his critics, as Mehdi put it, “We noticed in the last [few] years, the same thing is happening but for the head of the security services, which is kind of odd.”

Morocco’s King Mohammad VI has been particularly detached from public life since 2018 when he met the acquaintance of Moroccan-German MMA fighter and former convict Abu Azaitar, as reported by The Economist. The already publicity-shy monarch purportedly spent over 200 days outside the country in 2022, mostly with Abu and his brothers Ottman and Omat, according to an unidentified Moroccan official.

Who is actually running Morocco? The Economist article was a watermark as it suggested that simply the King had got tired of being a monarch and so accepted that his royal entourage should run the show. In recent years, the security services have taken advantage of this crisis to take more power at the expense of Morocco’s opaque ambitions to one day become a democracy akin to an EU country.

Eventually replacing the king’s trusted confidants, the Economist outlined how the Azaitars’ increasing influence within the royal court was troubling to many within the Makhzen. In 2022, the pro-Makhzen outlet Hespress published an article detailing the brothers’ criminal ventures but has since made a U-turn, stating in a particularly defensive May 13th, 2023 article that “At the time, Hespress was not seeking to defame or engage in sterile polemics.”

READ:Morocco: King faces anger from Atlas residents over earthquake

Instead, Hespress claimed that it was “trying to sound the alarm and draw attention to the dangers of these German brothers manipulating the Kingdom’s slogans and symbols, and their excessive boasting of expensive watches and luxurious cars, at a time when Morocco was facing a social crisis marked by [a] high cost of living, inflation, and rising prices.”

Having served a three-year prison sentence in Germany for dousing a businessman with lighter fuel and stealing his Ferrari, Abu Azaitar was released in 2006. Shortly after his release, Azaitar purportedly broke a man’s nose in a brawl at his MMA gym and punched his then-girlfriend at a Christmas market, perforating her eardrum, but was never charged for either assault.

The 2022 Hespress article condemning the Azaitar brothers’ behaviour is no longer available online and, while this might suggest that the matter of the Azaitar brothers has been settled within the royal court, the question is to what end?

Perhaps Mr Hammouchi’s increasingly long leash in the handling of internal affairs suits a king who, according to the Economist, has never had much taste for the day-to-day running of the country; a king who was whipped into the role by his domineering father. Mohammad VI may simply be more suited to Parisian life and globetrotting with his newfound friends than to inspiring a nation or enforcing his will within the royal court. Many Moroccans believe also that he is critically ill which explains his lack of motivation to many of the duties expected from him as a monarch.

If the Economist’s report holds weight, however,the king may be the one on Mr Hammouchi’s leash, as far fetched as that may seem. After all, Morocco’s survival of 2011’s Arab Spring protest movement has been widely attributed to the stabilizing factors of the monarchy as a symbol of power. This, combined with the revenue brought by the country’s status as a historically stable MENA tourist destination, would be plenty to motivate those in the true halls of power to avoid a bloody and costly coup d’état.

The reality of the status of Mr Hammouchi and the palace may, however, be a marriage of the two given hypotheticals. In perhaps the first mutually beneficial coup in history, a king who never wanted a crown continues to live lavishly on the state’s dirham while the Makhzen, led by Hammouchi, benefit from the historically legitimizing role of the monarch and his dynasty.

 

A very special status

Enjoying a special status regarding security, free trade, and its integration into EU sectoral policies, Morocco has avoided the scrutiny sometimes applied by Europe in dealing with equally authoritarian regimes. Morocco does hold a truly special status, that of the state with the power to flood Europe with untold numbers of African migrants, to get its way.  In recent years also it has leaned towards wealthy GCC donors to bring new waves of money into the country which has created a new dynamic allowing Rabat to consider the EU as a poor cousin, not worth the reverence it once yielded. In many ways, Morocco is becoming a GCC country mirroring the Gulf’s jaw-dropping human rights atrocities particularly when it comes to suppressing freedom of speech.

READ: Morocco foiled 366,000 attempts at irregular migration to EU

“There’s an arm wrestle between the EU for the [African] migrants,” said Mehdi, “in the last year, there was tension between Morocco and the EU. […] What Morocco did was [open] the gates in the north and thousands of migrants went to Spain. The EU cannot let this happen, so […] Morocco is playing a very powerful card.”

“Morocco is leveraging […] the migrant crisis [against the EU], and against the US it’s leveraging relations with Israel,” Driss interjected.

As well as its Israel normalisation, the recent expulsion of US troops from counter-terror bases across the Sahel following a pro-Russian shift has put Rabat in a powerful bargaining position with Washington, as an increasingly rare African security ally. Or at least for the moment while Joe Biden is in the White House.

READ:US troops prepare to leave Niger by September

Such an “arm wrestle” between Rabat and its European and US partners has a precedent in the relationship between said partners and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states. Most pertinently, Saudi Arabia has for decades been excused from adhering to human rights conventions and press freedom due to its willingness to quench the insatiable Western thirst for oil and continue to spend big on US arms. In the UAE, which is becoming increasingly close to Morocco, Abu Dhabi is becoming the new financier for Morocco.

In the ongoing Africa-Europe migrant crisis, we see Rabat being adorned with a similar status: the gatekeeper to Europe and subverter of liberty.

One of the myriad victims of Morocco’s emerging status is the man for whom this report is named, Omar Radi. Having committed the heinous crime of holding power to account, Omar lost his reputation, freedom, and safety, and unless the international community strive to keep his captors in check, he may lose his life behind bars.

When Maghrebi asked the Radis whether Omar would return to journalism upon his release, Driss replied with an emphatic “Yes!”

However, “what we wish for him is that he does [so] somewhere else.”

“Let’s just wait for Omar to get out of prison,” Mehdi concluded.

 

 

Maghrebi / ID2C / Amnesty International / BBC / Forbidden Stories / Human Rights Watch / The Economist

 


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