A Moroccan journalist and human rights activist has been jailed over a months-old tweet criticizing a judge and faces up to a year in prison if convicted, according to multiple international organizations.
Omar Radi, an award-winning reporter who’s published several stories exposing corruption in the North African country, was taken into custody on Thursday and charged with “insulting a magistrate,” Human Rights Watch said in a statement over the weekend.
Sarah Whitson, the nonprofit’s director in the Middle East and North Africa, said the move “reeks of political vengeance.”
“Criticizing officials is protected speech and no one should face prison time for peacefully doing so,” she said in the statement.
Radi’s April 6 tweet called out an appeals court judge who imposed sentences of up to 20 years on more than 40 people who had joined a wave of protests in northern Morocco in 2016 and 2017, according to Paris-based Reporters Without Borders.
“Let us all remember Appeals Judge Lahcen Tolfi, the enforcer against our brothers,” Radi wrote minutes after Tolfi’s court upheld the heavy penalties.
“In many regimes, small-time henchmen like him come back begging, later, claiming they were only ‘carrying out orders,’” he added. “No forgetting or forgiveness with such undignified officials!”
The 33-year-old journalist was interrogated for four hours just days after posting a series of critical messages on Twitter, but he didn’t hear back from police until Christmas Day, when he received a summons from a prosecutor’s office, according to Human Rights Watch. The nonprofit said the 30-minute session was solely about the April 6 tweet.
He was then taken into a cell and ordered to stand trial immediately, though his lawyers convinced the court to postpone the proceeding until Thursday, Jan. 2.
Radi faces between a month and a year behind bars if he’s found guilty.
Human rights and journalism groups said Radi’s arrest is part of an increasingly concerning pattern in Morocco, where courts have handed out heavy penalties against protesters, journalists and artists. A student who posted the lyrics of a critical rap song on Facebook was recently sentenced to three years in prison.
“Radi’s unjustified detention and trial comes amidst an increasingly suffocating atmosphere for Moroccan journalists, dissidents, and artists who speak out on social media,” said Whitson, from Human Rights Watch. “If you express your dissatisfaction of the government on YouTube, Facebook, or Twitter, you risk jail in Morocco. Not great for a country that still postures as a ‘liberal exception’ in the Arab world.”