A Moroccan journalist sentenced to five years in prison for indecent assault in a controversial case proclaimed his innocence Monday at the start of an appeal hearing.

Soulaimane Raissouni, 49, who was sentenced in July last year, is the latest journalist critical of Morocco’s government to have been jailed for sex crimes.

The editor-in-chief of now-defunct Akhbar Al Yaoum was arrested in May 2020 after an LGBT activist accused him of sexual assault.

He has always maintained his innocence and says he was prosecuted “because of his opinions”.

Morocco insists its judiciary is independent, that he received a “fair” trial and that the prosecution had “nothing to do with his journalistic work”.

Raissouni told the appeal hearing in Casablanca that he had not had “any relationship” with the complainant, and denied having “harassed, confined and assaulted” him.

The judge questioned Raissouni on a Facebook post in which the plaintiff accused him, under a pseudonym, of rape, as well as conversations allegedly showing he had “harassed” his accuser.

A Moroccan activist holds a poster with the image of journalist Soulaimane Raissouni, during a rally by his supporters after a court sentenced him to five years in prison for “sexual assault” Photo: AFP / FADEL SENNA

“I have nothing to do with these documents,” said Raissouni, who tried to convince the court of “inconsistencies” and “contradictions” in the statements of the plaintiff.

Media watchdog Reporters Without Borders (RSF) described his original trial as “tainted by irregularities”.

Raissouni went on a hunger strike last year for 122 days, preventing him from appearing at many hearings of his trial.

He appeared in good health on Monday.

The hearing is to continue on January 17.

Two other Moroccan journalists, Omar Radi last year and Taoufik Bouachrine in 2019, were respectively sentenced to six and 15 years in prison for sexual assaults which they denied.

Radi was also sentenced for “espionage”.

Morocco stands at 136 out of 180 in RSF’s world press freedom ranking of countries.

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