RABAT, Morocco — A Moroccan judge Monday found a journalist and her fiance guilty of having premarital sex and obtaining an abortion, and imposed prison sentences on them and a doctor convicted of performing the abortion, in a case that critics have denounced as a thinly veiled bid to suppress critical coverage of the government.
The journalist, Hajar Raissouni, 28, who works for the independent daily newspaper Akhbar Al Yaoum, and her fiance, Rifaat al-Amin, were arrested Aug. 31 as they were leaving a gynecologist’s office in the Moroccan capital, Rabat.
The defendants denied that an abortion had taken place and said that Raissouni had sought treatment after suffering a blood clot.
“This judgment comes as a shock,” said Cherki Lahrech, a journalist who was present for the verdict. “The defense proved her innocence. I don’t understand what happened. It all poses many questions.”
The judge sentenced Raissouni and al-Amin to one year in prison, and Dr. Jamal Belkeziz to two years. A second doctor and an office assistant were also found guilty of taking part in the procedure, but the judge gave them suspended sentences.
Raissouni, wearing a black traditional robe known as a djellaba and a head scarf, showed no outward reaction to the verdict, which drew cries and gasps from others in the courtroom.
Several of her friends huddled nearby afterward, crying and consoling each other, then waved goodbye as she was put into a police vehicle and driven away from the courthouse.
The trial was perhaps the most prominent example yet in a pattern of arrests and prosecutions of journalists who are critical of the state, on charges seemingly unrelated to their reporting.
Last year, Taoufik Bouachrine, the founder and publisher of Akhbar Al Yaoum, was sentenced to 12 years in prison on sexual assault charges, in a prosecution that the U.N. Working Group on Arbitrary Detention concluded was unfair.
Akhbar Al Yaoum is one of the few independent news outlets in Morocco. Raissouni has written about human rights and politics, and she has covered demonstrations in the Rif region in the north of the country that resulted in hundreds of arrests.
Her case has sparked protests and a torrent of commentary and criticism online — a rare outburst of public dissent in Morocco, an Arab kingdom on the northwestern coast of Africa. Many called for greater press freedom and for an overhaul of the country’s conservative penal code.
A few days ago, thousands of Moroccans signed a manifesto demanding the legalization of abortion and sex outside of marriage, just as parliament is set to consider amendments to allow abortion in cases of rape and incest. Currently, the procedure is legal only if a woman’s life is at risk.
A change in the rules governing the news media in 2016 abolished prison sentences for journalists based on their work, but critics say the government has continued its campaign against independent reporting through other charges.