On Saturday, July 30, when she poured fuel on her head and set herself on fire in the street, Khadija Souidi wanted to end the nightmare that she had endured for nearly a year. By her actions, she also wanted to send a message to her family and neighbours in Ben Guerir, an arid town located 70 km north of Marrakech. The message was received, but Khadija is not there to see it.
At the end of 2015, the young Moroccan woman of 16 was kidnapped by eight men. They forced her outside Ben Guerir before taking turns to rape and torture her. The rapists were quickly arrested, but left a botched trial as free men. They then returned to see Khadija, and threatened that if she continued to tell her story, they would upload to the internet images of the gang rape, which they had bravely filmed with a mobile phone. For Khadija, this threat was one humiliation too many. In the end, desperate, her ordeal denied by the authorities, the Moroccan set herself alight on that summer's day and succumbed to her injuries the next, in a Marrakesh hospital.
"Too late for Khadija"
"It is this blackmail that pushed Khadija to suicide", affirms Omar Arbib. The representative of the Moroccan Human Rights Association (AMDH) in Marrakech, who had access to documents of the investigation, explains that tests revealed "traces of assault with a knife, whip marks and other atrocities committed on her body."
At the trial of her assailants, Khadija Souidi, fatherless and from a very disadvantaged background, did not have the opportunity to be assisted by a lawyer. "I did not have the means," her mother told the association. Terrified, the widow withdrew her two youngest daughters from school. Khadija, a minor, was not being heard in the presence of a tutor, as Moroccan law advocates. "Rape was established at the hospital, but the Ben Guerir court did not take into account medical expertise, or seize the mobile phone on which the rape was filmed," says Omar Arbib indignantly.
In Morocco, the case sparked very strong emotions. Hundreds of tweets accompanied the hashtag #ripkhadijasouidi and several events were held in the court of Ben Guerir after Khadija's death.
Thanks to the mobilization of 22 Moroccan associations united in the collective Spring of dignity who sued for criminal damages in the case, the prosecutor finally decided to reopen the investigation at the beginning of August. In the process, an appeal trial began on August 29 at Ben Guerir against nine persons charged with "blackmail", "exploitation", "threats to a minor" and "duty to rescue". The ninth man is suspected of involvement in the blackmail video after the rape.
The group also managed to open a second appeal, this time at the criminal court of Marrakesh, more competent in crimes involving minors. One of the attackers has been sentenced to the maximum sentence of twenty years in prison. To give its verdict on the other defendants, the court is waiting for evidence from the mobile phone on which the rape was filmed. The Marrakesh trial was thus adjourned to 20 September. "We hope they will all be sentenced to the maximum penalty, said Omar Arbib. Even if it's too late for Khadija.”
For the Spring of dignity collective, this revival of judicial procedures is not enough. "Did we have to get to this point to achieve justice?, asks the head of the AMDH. We need to legislate, impose tougher sentences and, above all, prevent the abusers from approaching children again." In Morocco, the rape of an adult is punishable by five to ten years in prison and ten to twenty years on a minor.
The echo of Amina Filali
In Morocco, the Khadija Souidi case echoes that of Amina Filali. In 2012, this young 15 year old Moroccan girl killed herself after being forced to marry her rapist. He had managed to escape conviction under a law allowing a man guilty of raping a minor to escape jail if he marries his victim. Section 475 of the Penal Code, strongly criticized by civil society after the suicide of the teenager, was finally repealed two years later.
" In recent years, the Moroccan justice has become more firm about sanctions and social consciousness is more aware of pedophilia. This is a good step forward ", judges Najat Anwar, president of the association Don't touch my child. However, judges do not always apply the penalties. "The problem, is that it is mainly the assessments of certain magistrates that allow attackers to evade the law, " laments Mrs Anwar.
On the ground, in fact, the battle is far from won. Even if they get the condemnation of their attackers, victims do not receive any counseling or support for social reintegration, in a country where sexual assaults are taboo. The associations have created support cells for the victims, but find themselves overwhelmed. "Khadija is not the only case of abuse of minors. And we have more and more cases of gang rape", deplores Omar Arbib. Especially in Marrakech, which has become the epicentre of sex tourism, and rape of minors.