Opinion: Morocco’s jailed journalists deserve the Biden administration’s attention

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ONE OF the more awkward foreign policy problems inherited by the Biden administration is President Donald Trump’s reckless recognition in December of Morocco’s claim to the disputed territory of Western Sahara. The move reversed long-standing U.S. policy and placed Washington at odds with European allies, African nations and U.N. resolutions. Mr. Trump acted not on the merits of the issue, but as part of a deal to induce Morocco to upgrade its relations with Israel. It was an unjust and unnecessary reward for a regime that, under King Mohammed VI, has grown increasingly autocratic.

With many foreign challenges to juggle, the new administration unsurprisingly has been slow to clarify whether it will confirm the Trump position or reverse it, as it has been urged to do by 25 senators. Before it decides, it ought to engage with the regime about its human rights record — and, in particular, its assault on freedom of expression. A number of Moroccan journalists and human rights activists have been prosecuted for criticizing the king or exposing corruption, and two particularly prominent journalists are now more than three weeks into hunger strikes that could have tragic results.

Both Soulaiman Raissouni, the editor of the newspaper Akhbar Al-Youm, and Omar Radi, an award-winning investigative reporter, have been imprisoned without trial since last year. Mr. Raissouni, known for his criticism of government corruption and advocacy of political reform, was arrested on May 22, 2020; Mr. Radi, who also has written on corruption and served as a correspondent for international media, was detained on July 29. Mr. Radi was first charged with espionage, based on his contacts with Western diplomats and work for a British consulting firm. According to an investigation by Human Rights Watch, there is “no evidence that Radi did anything besides conduct ordinary journalistic or corporate due diligence work and maintain contact with diplomats, as many journalists and researchers do routinely.”

Strikingly, both Mr. Raissouni and Mr. Radi are charged with sex crimes. Authorities accused Mr. Raissouni of “indecent assault” on a gay man, while a co-worker of Mr. Radi accused him of rape. Sexual assault allegations must be taken seriously, but Moroccan authorities have a habit of bringing such cases against journalists. Mr. Raissouni’s predecessor as editor of Akhbar Al-Youm is serving a prison sentence on sexual assault charges, while his niece Hajar Raissouni, another crusading journalist, was sentenced to a year in prison for allegedly having sex outside of marriage. A report in March by the Committee to Protect Journalists concluded that “sex crimes charges have become another tool for authorities to punish journalists,” while claiming they are respecting a 2016 law banning prison terms for media workers.

The two men began their hunger strikes on April 8 and April 9 after their requests for bail were repeatedly denied and their trials repeatedly postponed. Mr. Raissouni has reportedly refused even to consume liquids; his wife said in a Facebook post the result would be “freedom, justice or death.” Mr. Radi, according to Reporters Without Borders, has lost more than 20 pounds and has suffered from vomiting and diarrhea. On Friday his father reported that he had suspended his strike “temporarily” because of the deterioration of his health. Coalitions of international human rights groups and intellectuals have joined more than 150 Moroccan journalists in calling for their release. They should be freed before the regime obtains any more political favors from the United States.