Saturday Profile: A Victim Not Only of Unjust Laws, but of ‘Unjust Authorities’

RABAT, Morocco — When Hajar Raissouni, an investigative journalist with one of Morocco’s only independent news outlets, went to her doctor’s office last August seeking treatment for a vaginal hemorrhage, she was not planning on becoming the center of a national discussion on press freedom, abortion rights and what critics say is the nation’s antiquated penal code. 

But on Aug. 31, minutes after she received the treatment, Ms. Raissouni and her fiancé, Rifaat al-Amin, were arrested — just two weeks before their wedding date. At first, she thought they were being robbed. But she quickly realized that the six men in plainclothes holding video cameras were police officers, and that she was being arrested because of her critical reporting on the Moroccan authorities.

The couple would eventually be charged with sex outside of marriage and having an abortion, both crimes in the North African kingdom, though the abortion laws are rarely enforced. Ms. Raissouni, who strongly denies having had an abortion, says she was forced by the Moroccan authorities to undergo a pelvic examination that aggravated the hemorrhage, provoking renewed bleeding.
Her physician, Dr. Jamal Belkeziz, a second doctor and an office assistant also were arrested, charged with violating abortion laws.
Their trial in September caused a sensation in Morocco, drawing crowds of supporters and protesters and unleashing a torrent of criticism from press freedom and abortion rights advocates, among others. The court’s decision to convict all five and sentence Ms. Raissouni and Mr. al-Amin, who is now her husband, to a year in prison provoked another uproar that was quieted only after the issuance of a royal pardon for all of the defendants on Oct. 16.

Naturally reserved, Ms. Raissouni is still dealing with the consequences of having her private life discussed for weeks in the national and international news media. But the case thrust her reluctantly into the headlines and onto a list of the top 10 cases of injustice against journalists, and she is determined to use her newfound celebrity to push for a political system with independent institutions and a free press.

“I was not just the victim of unjust laws but the victim of unjust authorities,” she said recently in an interview conducted in her apartment in Rabat. “My case wasn’t really about a nonexistent abortion, but it was the result of the arbitrary politics of the state.”
As terrible as this experience may have been, it seems fair to say that Ms. Raissouni seemed almost bound to fall afoul of the Moroccan authorities at some point.
She was born into a prominent family of landowners, warriors, intellectuals and political dissidents in northern Morocco, and was urged from an early age to hold those in power accountable in a country where injustice largely prevails.

Read the rest of the story on the New York Times' website.

[Podcast] The New Paris: State violence in France


'Trauma is inherited and we can’t heal unless we learn'

Ifrah Mansour was five years old when civil war broke out in Somalia, in 1991. Her family had just returned to Mogadishu from Saudi Arabia, where she was born.

An estimated 350,000 people died by 1992 of disease, starvation and the conflict that followed the overthrow of Siad Barre's military regime. Hundreds of thousands ended up fleeing the country, including Mansour's family, who sought shelter in Kenya's Dadaab refugee camp until they emigrated to the US in 1998, eventually settling in Minneapolis.

Today, 33-year old Mansour, a playwright, performer and visual artist, is one of the Twin Cities’ most vibrant creatives. The softly spoken petite woman is best known for her play, How to Have Fun in a Civil War, which she has performed across the US since 2015. The play is an expression of how childhood can still flourish in the midst of brutal hardship and disruption - turning painful family history into artistic creation.

The seven-year-old main character, played by Mansour, recalls the moments of light relief that existed alongside the fear and uncertainty. In one scene she pretends to eat dirt and stuff her nose with cigarette butts, the way she did when she was a child.

She brings other characters to life through impersonations, reenacting the way her mother would intricately braid her hair, or how she slept all day as an escape from reality.
Much of her work - on stage, in galleries, exhibitions, and using video - attempts to capture the complexity of the refugee experience. One of her most recent productions, My Aqal, involves setting up a replica of a traditional Somali nomadic hut made of thatch, which is used as a space to host performances and pop-up events on the themes of displacement.

As part of the roaming show, which she has so far taken to New York, Minnesota and Michigan, Mansour also runs workshops teaching people how to build an aqal with their own hands, with the aim of forging connections with the current global refugee crisis.

MEE caught up with Mansour before one of her performances in Minneapolis to talk about her aspirations for both her work and for refugees around the world.

You can read the interview here.

Morocco’s King Pardons Journalist Sentenced on Abortion Charge

Morocco’s king pardoned Hajar Raissouni, a journalist for an independent newspaper who was sentenced to a year in prison for an abortion that she denied having, the country’s ministry of justice said on Wednesday.

The ministry characterized the pardon as an act of “compassion and mercy,” saying that King Mohammed VI wanted to “preserve the future of the two fiancés who planned to found a family in accordance with religious precepts and the law.”

But human rights advocates said that Ms. Raissouni’s conviction was unjust and politically motivated, and that it exemplified the state’s persecution of independent journalists. The king also pardoned her fiancé, two doctors and an office assistant.

The case sparked weeks of outrage in the North African kingdom, with many speaking out in defense of press freedoms and others asking for reforms to the penal code. Ms. Raissouni and her fiancé, Rifaat al-Amin, had been sentenced to one year in prison.

“We’re relieved that Hajar and her co-defendents are free, but they should have never been arrested in the first place,” said Ahmed Benchemsi, communications director for Human Rights Watch’s Middle East and North Africa division. “A silver lining for this deplorable incident is that a debate was opened about archaic laws in Morocco, and now there’s a growing demand to repeal criminalization of nonmarital sex from legal books.”

Ms. Raissouni, 28, works for an independent daily newspaper, Akhbar Al Yaoum, that is critical of the state. She and Mr. al-Amin were arrested on Aug. 31 — just two weeks before their wedding — as they were leaving a gynecologist’s office in the Moroccan capital, Rabat. 

They were charged with having sex outside of marriage and an abortion, both crimes in Morocco. Ms. Raissouni said she sought treatment after she had suffered a blood clot, and her co-defendants also denied that an abortion ever took place.

A physician, Dr. Jamal Belkeziz, was sentenced to two years in prison. A second doctor and an office assistant were also found guilty of taking part in the procedure, but the judge gave them suspended sentences. 

“The recent release of Hajar Raissouni, her fiancé and the doctor brings about new hope for the Moroccan political and activist scene. It shows that activism and campaigning give results,” said Fayrouz Yousfi, a doctoral student and political activist behind an online campaign to free Ms. Raissouni. “Unfortunately, royal pardons cannot be the answer for all arrests that are politically motivated. Justice should be done for all activists, human rights activists and journalists who are put behind bars.”

In 2016, prison sentences were abolished for infractions to Morocco’s laws governing the press. However, press freedom watchdogs have reported that the state has been increasingly prosecuting journalists for matters unrelated to their reporting. Reporters Without Borders ranks Morocco 135th in its annual press freedom index. 

According to Maati Monjib, a historian, a prominent critical voice in Morocco and a friend of the Raissouni family, the pardon was a result of an intense national and international effort to release the prisoners.

“I am very happy that Hajar has just been released,” Mr. Monjib said, adding that activists were about to increase their pressure campaign. “Several associations and personalities were meeting to create a committee for the release of Hajar.”



Moroccan Journalist Sentenced to Prison for Abortion and Premarital Sex

RABAT, Morocco — A Moroccan judge on Monday found a journalist and her fiancé 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 fiancé, Rifaat al-Amin, were arrested on 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 Ms. 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 Ms. Raissouni and Mr. 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.

Ms. 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.

Finish reading the story on the New York Times' website

 

Climate change in the Middle East: These young activists are making a difference


Greta Thunberg's protest started small.

In September 2018, hoping to push her government to take urgent action against climate change, the then-15-year-old sat outside parliament in Stockholm for three weeks and next to her was a sign that read: "School Strike for the Climate".

Since then, she has continued with her protest, which she called "FridaysForFuture", bringing along hundreds of thousands of school students and others around the world with her.

This week, as more than 5,000 protests across the world are expected ahead of the United Nations' Climate Action Summit next week, we profile young climate change activists and environmentalists making a difference in the Middle East and North Africa.

Cick here to read about a Tunisian fighting plastic pollution. A young Turk, opposed to mining. And Iranians, jailed for trying to save cheetahs. The battle against the climate crisis starts here.

Moroccan Journalist on Trial for an Abortion She Says She Never Had

RABAT, Morocco — This weekend was supposed to have been a celebration of love.
The invitations had been sent, the flowers and cake ordered. Family and friends were getting ready to witness the wedding of a young Moroccan political reporter and a Sudanese university professor she met at a human-rights conference.

Instead, Hajar Raissouni and Rifaat al-Amin were arrested on Aug. 31 as they were leaving a gynecologist’s office in the Moroccan capital Rabat. They were charged with having sex outside of marriage and an abortion, both crimes in the North African kingdom.

The arrests outraged many in Morocco who saw it as another example of the government persecuting critical journalists and activists by charging them with moral crimes.
The doctor, along with an anesthesiologist and an office assistant, has been charged with performing an abortion. But he insists that he did not. Quite the contrary, he said he had saved Ms. Raissouni’s life after she suffered a blood clot.

The Moroccan government casts itself as a champion of women’s rights. But by prosecuting a couple and medical workers for a procedure that is done hundreds of times every day in the country, critics argue that the government undercuts its own claims and exposes its determination to silence dissent.
Ms. Raissouni works for Akhbar al-Yaoum, a daily newspaper that is one of the few independent news sources in Morocco. Though it employs fewer than a dozen reporters and has been in existence for only a decade, the paper and its journalists have found themselves in court many times.

In 2018, its founder and publisher was sentenced to 12 years in prison on sexual assault charges in a prosecution that the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention concluded was unfair.
Ms. Raissouni has focused on human rights and political reporting in her work, said an uncle, Soulaimane Raissouni, who is also the editor of Akhbar al-Yaoum.

“I don’t have hope, and neither does she,” said her uncle and editor. “One of her lawyers told her to prepare herself to spend at least one year in prison.”

Last year, Ms. Raissouni covered protests in the northern Rif region of Morocco that resulted in the jailing of hundreds of activists. Another uncle, Ahmed Raissouni, is a vocal critic of the government.
The press freedom group Reporters Without Borders says the Moroccan government has long tried to intimidate activists and journalists. The courts often put them on trail for matters seemingly unrelated to journalism or political activities, according to the group.

Abdeslam Imani, the prosecutor, said the authorities had not targeted Ms. Raissouni. They had been simply watching the doctor’s clinic to see if unlawful abortions were taking place, he said.
“The arrest of the journalist Hajar Raissouni has no connection whatsoever to her profession,” Mr. Imani said. “It happened by chance when she was in a medical office that was under surveillance.”

You can read the rest of the story on the New York Times' website


A Black Minneapolis Artist Brings Hidden Communities to Light


MINNEAPOLIS—Three years ago on a hot summer day, Philando Castile was shot and killed by police officer Jeronimo Yanez in Falcon Heights, a St. Paul suburb near Minneapolis. Bobby Rogers had recently graduated from art school and was turning from drawing to photography. As the two cities erupted in protests, Rogers documented the turmoil and anger with his camera.

“After Philando was killed by Officer Yanez, I understood that my individual perspective, not anyone else’s, is how I should tell the story of my people, with my people, for my people, and to my people,” Rogers says.

For his ongoing photographic portraits of Minneapolis gang members, Rogers, 27, and now resident photographer at Minneapolis’s Walker Art Center, reached back into his own past. He grew up in the Powderhorn neighborhood of South Minneapolis, an area where crime, violence, and drug trafficking were widespread two decades ago. Rogers was surrounded by gang members, but through it all, they and the rest of the community shielded him from trouble, predicting that a bright future awaited him.

His parents didn’t get a chance for a good life. They suffered from alcohol and drug addiction, and Rogers’s childhood was marked by constant moves back and forth between foster homes and back into his parents' care. He says his parents were from the generation that was under intense scrutiny during the war on drugs before becoming victims of drugs themselves. “My older brother would tell me stories of how my parents were like Bonnie and Clyde in their heyday,” he says. “Respected and feared. My dad was the quiet contemplative hustler and my mom was the enforcer.”

Despite his mother’s struggles, she was instrumental in his success, Rogers says, instructing him and his siblings to chant: “I am a leader! I am a soldier!” “She was preparing us for this world, the world she grew up in but was never able to talk about,” he said.

Rogers kept away from illegal activities and worked at his art. His first major foray at art was trying to improve his drawing skills by redrawing Pokemon cards when he was about six years old. Rogers graduated to studying illustration at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design. In 2014, he started actively documenting anti-police brutality protests with a camera and discovered his medium.

“I’d have thousands of images by the end of the day, chronicling from the perspective of those who trusted me to occupy the space,” Rogers said of his initial entry into photography. “Eventually, as the movement transformed, so did my aesthetic and approach.” And in the same fashion as other artists of his generation, he didn’t seek the help of galleries to launch him, but instead used Tumblr, Instagram, and Twitter to get his work known, highlighting subtle narratives of resilience and pride.

You can read the rest of the story here.

Workers in Spain’s Strawberry Fields Speak Out on Abuse

ALMONTE, Spain — A little over a year ago, a young mother left her children in the care of her husband in Morocco and went to work on a strawberry farm near the city of Almonte, on Spain’s southwestern coast.

Pregnant with her third child and needing money, she was led to believe she could make a few thousand euros for several months’ work — about a year’s earnings in Morocco. Instead, she is now stranded in Spain, awaiting trial after joining nine other women from the same farm, Doñaña 1998 d’Almonte, who have filed lawsuits stemming from events there, including accusations of sexual harassment and assault, rape, human trafficking and several labor violations.

Like other women interviewed for this article, the young mother asked that she be identified only by her initials, L.H., for fear of how spouses, family members and others would react when the article is republished in Arabic, as happens with most Times articles on Morocco. The husbands of some of the women, including L.H., have already filed for divorce.

The women said they often had little choice but to endure abuse, and experts agree.

“They are put in a situation where they are deprived of resources, and their sexuality becomes one way for them to survive,” said Emmanuelle Hellio, a sociologist who has chronicled conditions on the farms. “Sexism and racism fabricate situations in which they cannot complain and power relations make things particularly difficult to denounce.”


L.H. said her boss started sexually harassing her soon after her arrival. He pressured her to have sex, promising her a better life and working conditions.

When she resisted “he started forcing me to work harder,” she said, trying to soothe her baby girl, who was born in Spain. “The other girls would help me when it would get too hard for me on the field.”

Now, she lives with the other women in a location she asked to keep confidential, awaiting trial.
“I feel depressed and I am scared to look for work,” she says.

Strawberries are called red gold in Spain, the largest exporter of the fruit in Europe, where they are the basis of a $650 million industry. Andalusia, where the women worked, produces 80 percent of Spain’s strawberries.

Under a bilateral agreement signed in 2001, thousands of Moroccan women labor from April to June under sprawling plastic greenhouses to cultivate and harvest the fruit. The agreement specifies that the seasonal workers must come from the countryside, where poverty and unemployment are rampant, and must be mothers, so they want to return home, which most do.

It was seen as a win-win deal: an earning opportunity for the poor Moroccans, which gave Spanish farmers much-needed low-cost labor.

For years, academic researchers and activists have complained about the working conditions at the isolated farms, but the authorities in Spain and Morocco have taken little or no action, officials with local labor unions said.

But over a year ago, the 10 women decided to speak up, knowing they risked losing everything, including the respect and support of their conservative families. They are now paying that price, and would have been crushed long ago if not for the support of unions, activists and online fund-raising.


You can read the rest of the story here.


Somali and American: Portrait of a Minnesota Community

Refugees often say that war feels like a wave of violence washing over them, leaving behind death and destruction. The feeling was no different for Katra Ali Hethar, who fled war-torn Somalia in 1991 with her nine small children.

Being responsible for so many lives was a logistical nightmare. But even in moments of emergency, when given the opportunity to hop on a truck or car, she refused to leave a single one behind. She decided that they would either all survive or all perish together, choosing to take turns carrying them on her back. Eventually they made it across the Shebelle River, to the safety of a refugee camp in Kenya.

Two years later, the entire family, including her husband, who had a minor stroke that required immediate medical attention and left Somalia separately, found refuge in America. After living briefly in New York, then some years in Atlanta, the family settled in central Minnesota in 2006. In the nearly three decades since, the mother who survived war and that perilous journey has supported all her children, including three more born since her arrival, into adulthood. The United States offered them a home and security.

Like most migration stories, hers is full of both sadness and hope. Adjusting to life in a new country had its share of struggles. Moving first to St. Cloud, and later to Waite Park, a small town that is virtually a suburb of its larger neighbor, has been another kind of journey for a woman who never worked outside the house but dedicated her life to her children and to her community.
On one of the first warm evenings of this year’s belated spring, I found myself in Ali Hethar’s apartment for a very special event. She had invited a group of people she met at a senior center in St. Cloud, a town where about 80 percent of the population is white and non-Muslim, to share a meal to break the fast during Ramadan and get to know people from different communities better. Most of the guests at her Iftar were her typical neighbors—older white Americans.

The women and men took their shoes off and sat on the floor on a pleasantly soft blue carpet, wearing name tags and exchanging small talk. They conversed with their Somali hosts as, on a muted TV, the Milwaukee Bucks faced the Toronto Raptors in the NBA playoffs. At sunset, they ate dates, drank water, and then enjoyed a Somali meal of meat sambusas, baked goat and rice, with malawax (sweet pancakes) for dessert.

Born in Djibouti, a small East African country on Somalia’s northern border, Ali Hethar is not sure how old she is. Her passport says she was born in 1946, but she believes she was born much later, in 1958—on the last day of Ramadan, in fact. She has never learned English, but as I watched, she greeted, hugged, and smiled at her guests, communicating verbally with translation from of one of her daughters.

There was more to this social gathering than met the eye, for all its easy-going atmosphere. Minnesota, a blue-leaning state, is by many standards exceptionally welcoming of immigrants; it has the country’s second-largest population of Vietnamese Hmong people and is home to more Somalis than any other state in the country. But central Minnesota, where St. Cloud is, about an hour west of Minneapolis, is not such an easy place for outsiders to settle in. It has a strong Catholic tradition and a good many single-issue voters—that issue being abortion. Over 60 percent of voters there went for Trump in 2016.

That year also, though, a young Somali-American named Ilhan Omar beat a longtime Democratic incumbent for a seat in the State House; two years later, she was elected to the US Congress to represent Minnesota’s fifth district (which is centered on Minneapolis). Her election was a testament to how politically engaged the Somali community is. While Omar has gained a high profile on the national stage—both as one of 2018’s intake of Democrats on the strongly progressive wing of the party, and for controversy of over certain of her more combative statements—two other Somali-Americans sit in the Minnesota legislature, with more on the city councils of Minneapolis and St. Paul.

Distinct and notable about St. Cloud’s Somali-American community is that its leaders, elders, and activists have a battle-hardened quality that makes them very effective representatives. So many of them are, in fact, survivors of civil war and brutal dictatorship, that they have become adept at organizing and mobilizing—both in strengthening their own community and in reaching out to other people beyond it.

Established by European settlers in the nineteenth century, it was once referred to as “White Cloud.” But today, this town of 68,000 inhabitants has seen a growing number of Somali refugees arrive in the last two decades to work in meat factories or to attend the local campus of the state university. The presence of these new Muslim residents has created tensions ranging from verbal attacks to school bullying. A walkout by Somali-American high school students in 2015 made national headlines. As did a mall stabbing that year by a Somali immigrant who targeted non-Muslims, an attack that then-candidate Donald Trump exploited in the weeks running up to the presidential election. Within weeks of his election, the Trump administration issued its first Muslim travel ban, which included citizens of Somalia.

Click here to read the rest of the story.

Laila Lalami: ‘Whoever tells the story controls the world’

aila Lalami is never in a hurry to finish writing a book. A disciplined author, she spends months, sometimes years, developing carefully crafted narratives and finding joy in the company of the characters occupying her imagination.

She has won many awards and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. But instead of enjoying the prestige, she just works harder in the solitude of her Southern California office, writing fiction and non-fiction alike.

Much of the latter sheds light on her adopted country’s struggles with Islamophobia and racism – including attitudes toward another Muslim woman in America, the congresswoman Ilhan Omar.
Some days ago, Lalami was in Omar's home state, Minnesota, talking to a literary-minded audience in Minneapolis at the Wordplay book festival.

Inside the Guthrie Theater, on the banks of the Mississippi River, she talked about the work that went into producing her latest novel, The Other Americans, a captivating murder mystery centred around a family of Moroccan immigrants.

Sharing the stage in Minneapolis with recent Pulitzer Prize nominee Tommy Orange, the Moroccan-American novelist read from her novel.

“When we moved to America 35 years ago, many things took me by surprise, like gun shops next to barbershops, freeways that tangled like yarn, people who knocked on your door to talk about Jesus, 20 different kinds of milk at the grocery store, signs that say don’t even think about parking here.”
In America, Lalami is one of the best-known and most-acclaimed North African authors of her generation. Her essays regularly appear in major publications and she is the author of Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits (2005) and Secret Son (2009).

In 2014, she drew much praise for The Moor’s Account, a fictional memoir of a Moroccan slave and the first black explorer of America. The book won several awards and was a Pulitzer finalist in 2015.

A journey home

Incidentally, just as she finished the book and took a much needed break in the western state of Wyoming, her father fell ill in Morocco. She experienced what many immigrants go through, having to find a seat on a plane and scrambling to arrive before it was too late.
Her father recovered, but she went back to California with a fear she couldn’t shake – the fear of losing a parent, the fear of being too far away and helpless. So she used the experience, embedding all her complex and uncomfortable feelings into her fourth novel, The Other Americans.

Read the rest of the story here.

Pope Francis’ Visit to Morocco Raises Hopes for Its Christians


MEKNES, Morocco — On a Monday evening in a ground-floor apartment shielded from the street by heavy yellow curtains, five people stood around a table in the living room as a woman read from a pink leather-bound Bible in Arabic.

Holding hands, they prayed and read psalms, as a mandolin player accompanied their chants and a 2-year-old girl hit a ball playfully against the pink walls.

They would prefer to worship in a church, but as Moroccans and former Muslims who converted to Christianity, they are compelled to hide their activities from public sight.
Morocco, where Pope Francis will arrive on Saturday for a visit, is widely perceived to be an unusually tolerant Muslim country. And to a certain extent, it is.

It is the only Arab country that constitutionally guarantees recognition of its Jewish population, granting it separate laws and courts to regulate matters related to family law. It also regularly organizes events to promote interfaith dialogue and has ratified international treaties guaranteeing religious freedom. The foreign-born, largely Westerners and immigrants from sub-Saharan Africa, can worship openly.

Moroccans, 99 percent of them Sunni Muslims, cannot freely express atheistic beliefs or conversion to another faith. Criticizing Islam remains extremely sensitive, and worship for indigenous Christians, who number somewhere between 2,000 and 50,000, is problematic, particularly for those who converted from Islam.

Moroccan Christians have long been ostracized, sometimes rejected by society and closely scrutinized by the state. They are not officially banned from churches. But to practice their faith openly is to invite harassment and threats, even — or especially — from relatives.

While almost no one is being arrested because of their beliefs these days, most feel constrained from freely attending churches and publicly performing rituals like baptisms, weddings and funerals in accordance with their beliefs. But priests and pastors face possible accusations of proselytizing, a crime in Morocco, simply by having Moroccans attend Mass.

Voluntary conversion, while stigmatized, is not technically illegal. Evangelism is. Morocco has expelled dozens of foreigners suspected of proselytizing, or “shaking the faith of a Muslim.” In 2010, the Village of Hope orphanage in the Middle Atlas Mountains was shut down on suspicion that it was teaching Christianity to the children.

Attention to the plight of Morocco’s Christian converts is getting some traction ahead of Pope Francis’ arrival, as they seize the opportunity to advocate greater freedom to worship.

You can read the rest of the story on the New York Times' website

The Impact of #MeToo in France: An Interview with Lénaïg Bredoux



In 2011, when Dominique Strauss-Kahn, then the managing director of the International Monetary Fund, was arrested in a Manhattan hotel on rape charges, Lénaïg Bredoux, a Paris-based reporter, watched the reporting in dismay. At the time, the French media largely devoted itself to criticizing the American judicial system instead of investigating allegations that had dogged Strauss-Kahn for years. Moved to action, she contacted the French journalist Tristane Banon, who, in 2007, publicly accused him of sexually assaulting her in 2003 and that is how Bredoux uncovered a culture of silence inside the French Socialist Party.

Since then, Bredoux, who is now the chief political correspondent for the independent news organization Mediapart, has covered sexual misconduct allegations against politicians and other prominent figures, including the director and screenwriter Luc Besson. (Besson, who has been accused of sexual assault or harassment by nine women, has denied the allegations.) Bredoux has thus become the French equivalent of The New Yorker’s Ronan Farrow for her work uncovering MeToo offenders—except that in the US, alongside Farrow, there are legions of women journalists who have pursued stories about sexual harassment and men’s abuse of their professional status and power, whereas, in France, Bredoux is almost a unique figure.

Last month, Bredoux was forced to defend the accuracy of her reporting in court. In 2016, she wrote a series of stories describing several women politicians’ accounts of being sexually harassed or sexually assaulted by the then deputy speaker of the National Assembly, Denis Baupin. The politician denied the allegations, which ranged from lewd text messages to groping, but nonetheless resigned from his position. He then filed a defamation lawsuit, which led to the prosecution of six accusers and two news outlets, Mediapart and the radio station France Inter.

On the stand in a Paris courtroom, the six accusers each in turn explained how they were afraid to report Baupin’s behavior because they thought it would hurt their careers. Cécile Duflot, a prominent member of the Green Party (known in French as Europe Écologie Les Verts), shed tears as she related how she had been assaulted by Baupin years earlier but had never reported it. She had even advised another woman not to report her harassment by another man, she confessed, because she felt she should protect the party concerned.

The trial has split French society along now-familiar lines, as one side defended sexual liberty and the other called for the condemnation of behavior that has harmed so many women and their careers. On the final day of the hearings, Bredoux and her colleagues wept as Baupin’s accusers told the judge that they had submitted their lives to the glare of the media because they hoped, finally, to be believed. “We must remain vigilant,” Geneviève Zdrojewski, a retired civil servant who had worked as an aide to a senior political leader, said. “There is always a risk of going backwards. It’s the media’s role to protect us.”

In her closing arguments, the prosecutor pleaded for the acquittal of the journalists and the six women. She believed that the reporting was thorough and that the women “sincerely related what they have subjectively experienced.” A verdict will be delivered in a few weeks. In the meantime, it is clear that something has changed in France. The media no longer dismisses the words of women who speak out. It also seems that the country is experiencing a delayed, but very necessary, national reckoning with the prevalence of sexual assault and sexual harassment.

As the trial ended, Bredoux and I met for coffee to discuss her work, her feelings about having to defend it in court, and what motivates her to investigate powerful men accused of sexual misconduct. The following interview was translated from French and edited for concision.

Click here to read the interview.

The Soccer Politics of Morocco

Casablanca, Morocco—On that glorious night, they stood on their seats for almost the entire game, arms aloft, shouting, cheering, booing and, most of all, singing. Lyrical chants filled the air that chilly November evening. There was a sea of green—their team’s color—on their shirts and on the flags they waved. Artistic graffiti decorated the stadium.

The fans shared an immense love for and loyalty to the Raja Athletic Club of Casablanca (RCA). They sang and sang until the final whistle, savoring every word of songs that expressed the passion in their hearts. Raja was facing AS Vita Club of the Democratic Republic of the Congo in the first leg of the CAF Confederation Cup final, one of Africa’s major soccer tournaments. 

It was hard to focus on the action on the field because the supporters captured most of our attention in the stadium. The most engaged ones filled Curva Sud, an area in the bleachers where the hardcore fans known as “ultras” traditionally watch the games. The seats are cheaper, the view isn’t great, but it’s where every diehard fan wants to be. Even the Moroccan players, as they warmed up before kick-off, filmed the crowd with their smartphones, seemingly in awe of the enthusiasm.

One man in a green cap had driven from Marrakech, a journey of 150 miles. Another took the one-hour bus ride from a neighboring city. Some kids walked to the stadium. Two women who haven’t missed a single game this year brought their young cousin along. Families filled the stadium hours before the game started. A space that was once almost the sole property of men is seeing more women. Recently, there has been an online campaign against sexual harassment—in which the Raja ultras themselves participated, vowing to make the stadiums safe for women. 

During the second half of the game, the tension mounted. Raja finally scored. The air smelled of smoke bombs set off in celebration. Then a revolutionary chant exploded in the stadium. In unison, they sang in Moroccan Arabic “Fbladi Dalmouni,” or “In my country, I suffered from injustice.” The lyrics are astonishingly controversial for a country where jails are filled with hundreds of prisoners of conscience. This defiance spoke of economic hardship, a lack of freedom, and an ardent desire for change.

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Men Held in Tourist Killings in Morocco; Denmark Suggests an ‘Act of Terror’

COPENHAGEN — The authorities in Morocco said on Thursday that three more suspects had been arrested in the killings of two Scandinavian tourists in the Atlas Mountains, in what Danish officials suggested was an act of terror linked to the Islamic State.

The Central Office of Judicial Research in Morocco said in a statement that the three suspects had been detained in Marrakesh. Another suspect arrested on Tuesday was thought to have extremist ties, Moroccan prosecutors told local news outlets without providing further details. The names of those arrested were not immediately released.

The authorities said that the bodies of the victims, Louisa Vesterager Jespersen, 24, of Denmark and Maren Ueland, 28, of Norway, were found on Monday by other tourists in an isolated area of the High Atlas Mountains, an area popular with hikers and six miles from the village of Imlil. Both women had been studying at the same school in Norway to become tour guides.

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Morocco’s Deadly Train Accident


RABAT, Morocco -- Despite the Moroccan government’s eager solicitation of press coverage of its TGV, the high-speed train scheduled to be launched this year after more than seven years in the works, it is not so eager for coverage of another train story: On Tuesday, journalists were reportedly barred from entering the courtroom in the city of Salé, where the conductor of the train in a recent, deadly accident, was on trial.
Earlier this month, on the morning of October 16, Moroccan commuters between the cities of Kenitra and Rabat posted on social media that they felt unusual vibrations on the train tracks.
Employees of the state-run train company, the Office National des Chemins de Fer, or ONCF, ignored the complaints, according to several accounts on Facebook. That same morning, shortly after some of the concerns were raised, a train derailed near Bouknadel, a small coastal town, just north of Rabat, killing seven and injuring dozens.
The accident was the deadliest since 1993, when two commuter trains collided on the outskirts of Rabat, killing 14 and wounding more than 100.

As reports about this recent accident went public and disturbing photos were shared online, people were shocked and saddened but not really surprised. Many felt that grim precursors had indicated for a long time that a train tragedy would occur.
After Moroccans buried their dead and showed solidarity with the wounded, giving their blood and helping with the rescue efforts, the debate that followed the horror wasn’t only about the train company’s responsibility: People are demanding some sort of accountability and they’re not getting answers.
The TGV is reputed to be the first high-speed train in Africa and the government has been proudly showing off the prototype to foreign journalists for several years. But this recent accident has put Moroccan trains in the headlines again, and the TGV at the center of debate.

You can read the rest of the article on The Atlantic's City Lab's site.


Morocco Unleashes a Harsh Crackdown on Sub-Saharan Migrants

RABAT, Morocco — In a widespread crackdown, sub-Saharan migrants in Morocco are facing arbitrary arrest, banishment to remote sections of the country and, lately, outright expulsion, analysts and rights advocates say.

Rights advocates contend that the raids, which government officials acknowledge, began in the summer and were coordinated with Spain and the European Union to stem the tide of migrants to the Continent. The Moroccan government says they were aimed at only undocumented migrants and human trafficking.

The crackdown began in June and intensified in late July, after at least 600 migrants successfully crossed to the Spanish enclave of Ceuta in northern Morocco, rights groups say. Sub-Saharan migrants, even some with valid residency permits, described wholesale roundups in which they were herded onto buses with little more than the clothes they were wearing and taken to cities hundreds of miles to the south.

Abdoulaye N., 31, a Senegalese immigrant who, like other migrants interviewed for this article, asked that only his given name be used for fear of reprisals, was one of those swept up in the raids.

Four years ago, he had settled in the city of Tetuan on the Mediterranean Sea, where he obtained a residency card and slowly integrated into Moroccan society. He sold cheap jewelry in the market, sent money home to his family and generally kept a low profile.


Yet, one morning early last month, five plainclothes police officers burst into the apartment he shared with two other migrants and arrested them. Told the raid was part of a simple document check, they found themselves hours later on a bus that took an overnight trip 600 miles south to the desert city of Tiznit.

Far from an isolated incident, their banishment is consistent with hundreds of other accounts, human rights advocates say, leaving many sub-Saharans living in fear of arrest and displacement, often afraid even to stay in their homes. Gadem, a human rights group based in the Moroccan capital of Rabat, estimates that about 6,500 migrants have been arrested and displaced since the crackdown began.

Finish reading the story on the New York Times' website.

Between Hate, Hope, and Help: Haitians in the Dominican Republic | NYR Daily | The New York Review of Books

Women and men press against the barbed-wire gate, waiting for the guards to let them in. Twice a week, the border crossing opens so that Haitians can get access without a visa to a market located on Dominican land in the northern city of Dajabón, just a short walk from the crossing point.

Behind the crowd at the gate, a loud procession is making its way along the Massacre River (so named for the 1728 killing of a group of French buccaneers by Spanish settlers) that separates Haiti and the Dominican Republic before crossing a short bridge that connects the two countries. Many of those making this trek have come from Ouanaminthe, the nearby Haitian town, while others’ journeys started much deeper inside Haiti. Some are carrying heavy loads and most are commuting by foot, though there are some on motorcycles and a few, privileged ones ride cars or small trucks.

It’s 8 AM on a hot and sultry Friday. The guards, holding their weapons tightly, finally open the gate, letting the travelers—mostly buyers—onto Dominican soil. Under the watchful eyes of border agents, the sellers rush to the space allocated to them, carrying food, clothes, and other goods. The two-story cement building that houses the market cannot hold all the merchants, so many settle outside, as buyers find their way through the crowded arena, undeterred by the suffocating heat. A woman carrying a large bucket containing shampoo, deodorant, and socks walks around the market yelling out prices. Two other women lay a sheet on the floor, selling shoes that they purchased in Cap Haitien. The vendors generally aren’t picky about currencies; they will take anything—Haitian gourdes, Dominican pesos, or US dollars.

The two towns, Dajabón and Ouanaminthe, only a bridge away, nevertheless exist worlds apart, with vast differences in language, culture, religion—and most of all, development. Dirt roads and poverty stand on the Haitian side to the west, while supermarkets, shops, and visible prosperity occupy the Dominican side on the east.

Haiti and the Dominican Republic share the island of Hispaniola, the largest in the Caribbean after Cuba, but the peoples on either side of the island rarely mix thanks to decades of political tensions and mutual fears fed by a history of wars, massacres, and other atrocities. Some are hopeful that the Dajabón market is a testament to these neighbors’ capacity to get along. But as politicians have manipulated racialized anxieties and fears that defy economic logic and business interests, the strain between the two countries has only intensified.

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Violences sexuelles: comment enquêter? [MediaPart]

World Cup 2018: Morocco’s Glimpse of the Possible


For Morocco, this World Cup began with defeat. We were favored to win our first match, against Iran, but in a turn of fate, with the game tied nil-all and minutes before the end, one of the Moroccan players scored an own-goal. That 1-0 loss crushed our slim hopes to shine and to advance from a challenging group. Sure enough, in our second game, against Cristiano Ronaldo’s Portugal, we proceeded to lose—despite dominating the match. On Monday, against Spain, we had little left to play for—except, perhaps, some honor. But in an amazing game that twice saw Morocco go ahead against one of the world’s top teams, we earned a 2-2 draw that left Moroccans proud of the national team despite its not making it to the next round. 
This was the first time in twenty years that Morocco—a country where soccer is hugely popular—has competed on the game’s biggest stage. A good many Moroccans traveled to Russia to cheer on the team. What they’ve seen there—a pair of defeats and a tie that have again deferred our dream of becoming a great soccer nation—has, despite that upbeat final match, been a disappointment.
The downcast feeling of this World Cup for Moroccans has much to do with circumstances beyond the pitch. Political and economic difficulties back home have cast a pall on the campaign of a national team that mainly comprises players drawn from the Moroccan diaspora in Europe. Since October 2016, political unrest has shaken northern parts of the kingdom, with protesters demanding more jobs and less corruption. The Moroccan authorities met these demonstrations with repression and mass jailings. Citizen groups recently organized an economic boycott of gas, milk, and water companies in an effort to force them to lower their prices. Popular resentment is palpable. The cost of living is too high and people are fed up with a government that has been preoccupied with promoting Morocco’s bid to host the World Cup in 2026. 
The day before this year’s tournament kicked off in Moscow, FIFA chose a rival bid for 2026 from the United States, Mexico, and Canada. This was Morocco’s fifth attempt to win the right to host the tournament. But many of us Moroccans were relieved at the news of this loss since it prevented what would surely have been an economic catastrophe for this nation of 35 million that suffers from endemic unemployment and poverty. Although its backers pointed to FIFA’s promises, if the bid were successful, to provide assistance in building new roads and hospitals, the main expenditure on a World Cup would probably have gone to erecting nine new stadiums the country doesn’t need.
What the country does need, certainly, is a positive event—and that’s what lay behind the government’s efforts in recent years to persuade Morocco’s rising bi-national soccer stars living in Europe to play for their parents’ homeland. Of the twenty-three players who represented us in Russia, seventeen were born outside Morocco. The captain, Medhi Benatia, was born in France and plays for Juventus in Italy. Soccer is hugely popular in the working-class, immigrant-dominated neighborhoods on the peripheries of European capitals where many Moroccans live—and from where many talented football players have emerged. 
Back in the 1980s, as the country was going through the “bread protests” prompted by hikes in food prices, King Hassan II pushed for the development of sports. Moroccan stars emerged on the field, rallying the country behind a strong sense of patriotic pride. Through the 1990s, sportsmen and sportswomen representing Morocco won gold medals in Olympic games, competed in international tennis tournaments, and qualified for top soccer championships. But that has changed. King Mohammed VI, in power since his father Hassan’s death in 1999, seems less interested in sports.
Efforts to produce winning teams have often prioritized recruiting Moroccans from the diaspora over supporting sports at home. This approach helped us qualify for Russia, but now that we’re there, it has also predictably been blamed for the struggles of a team on which many players don’t speak Arabic. Communication among them was said to be complicated, with a degree of confusion about whether the coach, the Frenchman Hervé Renard, should address his players in French or English.
Many people back home today shared the sentiments of fans like Amine Lahbabi, who lives in Casablanca. “I don’t feel represented by this team,” he told me before the Cup began. “To me, this World Cup will be a chance to see beautiful games and incidentally support this squad, but nothing further.” The artist Réda Allali, one of the most committed Moroccan soccer fans I know, felt similarly. “Back in the day, the players used to live in our neighborhoods,” he said. “Sometimes, we’d run into them in cafés. Some were students, others had a day job at the bank, they felt accessible. Now, with globalization, much of this has changed.”
Much also hasn’t. Throughout Morocco, men fill cafés to watch games—local and international—while exchanging strong opinions about the teams and coaches’ strategies. Boys and young men, often dressed in knock-off jerseys of their favorite players, play soccer in the streets or on the beach. The screams of ecstatic fans fill the air when a favorite star like Lionel Messi scores a goal.
I myself grew up in a household where we watched every one of the national team’s games that we could. My father once served as the treasurer of the main club in his hometown, Fes, and my brother Mehdi—who has an excellent memory—can talk for hours about the players he idolizes, his favorite goals, and classic soccer moments over the years.
After the 1986 World Cup in Mexico, people raved for years about how Morocco was the first African squad ever to make it to the second round. Although the team then lost to Germany, it received a hero’s welcome when it returned to Morocco. And in 1998, even if we didn’t pass the tournament’s first round, the national team was celebrated and welcomed with cheers and love from their fans for an honorable performance. There was some magic in watching our Moroccan boys sharing the field with huge stars like Ronaldo of Brazil. 
Before this World Cup, though, we were jaded, and Morocco’s fans were apathetic. Even so, I was surprised when Mehdi told me he had no plans to go to Russia. Perhaps I shouldn’t have been. These days, Moroccans are more excited about the Egyptian striker Mohamed Salah than they are about their own players. I am currently in the Dominican Republic on assignment—a country where people love baseball, but soccer not so much. I tried to watch the first Moroccan game in a bar, but the bartender couldn’t find a network that broadcast it. So I watched a poorly-streamed version on my iPad. I wanted to be with other Moroccans, and when we lost, I didn’t think about any larger issues, I just felt sad. 
No matter how disillusioned you are with your country’s team or how frustrated with your country’s government, it still hurts to see a squad of players, dressed in the national colors, not succeed. But as that strong final game reminded me, it’s hard not to feel proud when they do. Between that opening loss to Iran and the second half against Spain, something changed. Maybe it happened sixteen minutes into the Portugal game, when our ebullient winger Nordin Amrabat, who had received a head injury in the game against Iran, tossed away his protective headgear and urged the team on. That won Moroccans’ hearts. 

You can read the story on the New York Review of Books' website.

The College Student Who Has France’s Secularists Fulminating

PARIS — The French interior minister, Gérard Collomb, called her appearance “shocking.” Marlène Schiappa, the minister of gender equality, said she exhibited a “manifestation of political Islam.” The satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo put her on its cover with a drawing that many considered racist.
Her offense: wearing a head scarf during a television interview.

Elected last December as the leader of the Sorbonne chapter of the French National Students’ Union, Maryam Pougetoux, 19, is used to hearing from those who disagree with her progressive views. But she was entirely unprepared for what happened last month after she criticized recent changes in educational policy in the interview.

Ms. Pougetoux, a practicing Muslim who wears a head scarf that covers her hair and neck, had been asked to comment on one of the main television channels, M6, about proposed changes that would make admission to universities more selective. She and the hordes of students who took to the streets recently in protest consider the measure discriminatory and elitist.

But the debate that followed had nothing to do with education and everything to do with her appearance. It was set off in large part by Laurent Bouvet, a secularist and member of a group called Le Printemps Républicain, or Republican Spring. The group was created in 2016 to defend the French republican ideal of “laïcité,” which emerged during the revolution as a way to keep the Roman Catholic Church out of the affairs of state. But in recent years, critics say, some groups have used it to suppress the growing influence of Islam in France.

In a Twitter post, Mr. Bouvet said, “we aren’t hunting anyone but merely pointing to the inconsistency” of a leader of the student group wearing a head scarf. “How can one defend values like abortion and feminist principles while displaying conspicuously their religious beliefs,” he asked.
Pretty soon, it seemed that almost everyone had something to say about this unapologetically religious student.

Ms. Pougetoux herself was baffled by the outburst, saying she had to research “political Islam” online to understand the accusation. She also was not particularly outraged by the caricature of her on the profanity-laced cover of Charlie Hebdo, which many said made her look like a monkey.
“I first laughed. Charlie Hebdo mocks everyone, I didn’t take it personally,” she said in a recent interview. What she liked, she says, is that, “they were the only ones who actually emphasized my message.”

Still, she realized not everyone shared her sense of humor. “I was extremely hurt when I realized that it caused a lot of pain for my family and friends,” she said.
Not surprisingly, she has received plenty of support from her peers.

“In five years I have never seen this level of mistreatment of a student leader,” one student from Denmark said to Ms. Pougetoux in the offices of the student group. “You are super amazing. Don’t let the racists win.”

A sparkle came to Ms. Pougetoux’ blue eyes as she thanked the young man. She has been receiving similar demonstrations of support over the past two weeks on her university’s campus, on the streets of the French capital, and online.

But the entire experience has been quite an ordeal for the 19-year-old, who is studying literature and communications.

Ms. Pougetoux did not break any law. While head scarves and other religious symbols are banned in public service and in primary and secondary public schools in France, they are permitted on college campuses. Moreover, one expert said, the concept of laïcité should not be used to stigmatize minorities but instead to ensure freedom for everyone.

You can finish reading the story on the New York Times' website

Morocco’s D.I.Y. Dance Crews

MARRAKESH, Morocco — Under the yellow domed ceiling of the Theater Royal of Marrakesh, a small crowd cheered and watched in awe as champion break dancers from around the world battled, with head slides, freezes and kicks, in a competition streamed globally online.

“Make some noise!” the host of the event screamed into a microphone. “Show enthusiasm. People don’t know anything about Morocco.”

The spectators grew louder. 

They were especially excited about the performance of Fouad Ambelj, a 24-year-old Moroccan prodigy who dances as Lil Zoo and who has become a worldwide sensation.

“It’s a great outlet for negative energy,” Mr. Ambelj said. “I love that there are no rules. I can express anything I want. It makes me feel free.”

In Morocco, where state funding and institutions for the arts is scarce, break dancing has empowered young people to make their own entertainment since its arrival in the 1980s. The dance form, born a decade earlier in the Bronx, was ostensibly free; all it required were able bodies and open space.

“As a young guy in Casablanca, if you don’t have money or you don’t want to sit in a cafe every day talking about football, one fun thing is to go to a space and conquer it,” said Cristina Moreno Almeida, a postdoctoral fellow at King’s College in London who has studied hip-hop culture in Morocco. “It’s a global language that they all speak and they all know.”

For years, these B-boys practiced in public outdoor spaces. They fashioned makeshift dance floors out of cardboard to practice head spins when they couldn’t find grass fields. 

You can read the rest of the stories and check out the stunning photos by Yassine Alaoui Ismaili on the New York Times' website here

 

[RADIO] This Haitian comedian revealed her trauma and became a voice for #MeToo



From Prison's Horrors, a Work of Art


Haunted by the suffocating horror and hopelessness he witnessed in Haiti’s national prison, this artist finds solace in his work.

Accused of arson, Paul Junior Casimir spent a year there, awaiting a trial that never was scheduled. He is one of the lucky ones; others have died waiting. Freed only because aid workers recognized his talent and a non-profit organization was willing to work on his case, upon release, Casimir began frantically building an art installation that recreates the hell he experienced.

Casimir, 35, hopes the project, a traveling installation called “Enfermé, Libéré” [Locked Up, Freed] will draw public attention and help build momentum for change.

 The exhibition, which also includes photographs by Seyi Rhodes, was first displayed at the French Institute a few months ago. It is supported by the Haiti Bureau of Human Rights (BDHH), a non-profit organization made up of lawyers who provide legal aid to prisoners. Representatives of BDHH say the country’s main prison was never rebuilt after the magnitude 7.0 earthquake destroyed large parts of the city in 2010, but nonetheless it holds more than 4,000 prisoners, about six times its capacity of 700, even though some walls and ceilings are only half there. The vast majority—80 percent—are awaiting trial, according to the 2016 Survey of the Incarcerated Population of the Prison, a report commissioned by the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti.

Some prisoners already have been exonerated, but their files were lost, so they remain, said lawyers from BDHH. Most prisoners cannot afford a lawyer. If found guilty, many would probably be sentenced to a fraction of the time they already have spent in prison waiting to appear before a judge. Inmates die daily of diseases like tuberculosis and cholera, or malnutrition, according to the United Nations’ report.

In Casimir’s installation, currently showing at Haiti’s national library located near the penitentiary in downtown Port-au-Prince, human-sized papier-mâché figures hold onto thin bars as they lay on tiny wooden beds. Pencil portraits and photos of real detainees hang on the walls; handwritten letters are pinned next to the puppets. They contain cries of despair of men and women, lost in the system and forgotten by the outside world.
On Sept. 21, 2015, in a letter now publicized on the BDHH’s website, prisoner Labonté Marcel wrote:
“Dear Mr. Superintendent, I am writing you because I am suffering a lot in prison. I have been here since the eighth month of 2008. I have nobody, and I am asking you for help because I am very sick. Please help.”
A year and a half later, on Feb. 8, 2017, Marcel died in prison—more than eight years after he was confined. He never got a trial, said Pauline Lecarpentier, the secretary general of the BDHH. He was buried anonymously in a collective funeral with other prisoners.

You can read the rest of the story on the Atlantic's Citylab here