Morocco 'should free or retry jailed Sahrawis'

Morocco 'should free or retry jailed Sahrawis'
Analysis: A group of 21 Sahrawis imprisoned for their role in protests in 2010 in 'seriously flawed trials' must be re-tried or released, activist have said.
4 min read
06 November, 2015
Sahrawi activists protest after security forces storm the protest camp in Gdeim Izik [AFP]
Four human rights organisations have called on Moroccan authorities to free 21 prisoners serving lengthy sentences for their alleged roles in the deadly 2010 Western Sahara protests.

If they are not freed, they must be granted a fresh, fair trial before a civilian court and have all torture claims investigated, Human Rights Watch said on Thursday.

The call was made to mark the five-year anniversary of the 8 November protests over which the group was jailed.

"The bereaved families of those who lost their lives in November 2010 have a right to see justice done," said Sarah Leah Whitson, HRW's Middle East and North Africa director.

"However, justice is surely not done by locking up a group of Sahrawis following a guilty verdict by a military court, based on confessions allegedly obtained under coercion or torture, without any other evidence linking them to these killings."

The organisations advocating for their release are HRW, Amnesty International, Action by Christians for the Abolition of Torture, and the Sahrawi Association of Victims of Grave Human Rights Violations.

Eleven members of Morocco's security forces and two civilians died in violent protests on 8 November 2010, after security forces tried to dismantle a protest camp and violence spilled over into the nearby city of El-Ayoun.

The camp had been built a month earlier by the Sahrawis in Gdeim Izik in Western Sahara, which is under Moroccan control, to call for various social and economic demands.

Authorities arrested hundreds of Sahrawis at the time, but most were released without trial.
     There were no witnesses and no material evidence was presented linking defendants to the deaths, said human rights groups

On 17 February 2013, 25 men were convicted in a military court for their alleged roles in the violence in what HRW has described as "seriously flawed trials".

Two men were sentenced to time served, one was sentenced in absentia, another was released provisionally on health grounds, and the remaining 21 are serving prison terms of between 20 years and life.

Their convictions were based almost exclusively on statements they had made which they allege were false and signed under police torture.

The 21 men are in Sale prison, 1,200km from their homes in Western Sahara.

Several are also members of the Western Sahara human rights organisation, a group critical of ongoing Moroccan rule over Western Sahara.

The defendants were charged with forming a "criminal gang" and taking part in violence against security forces "leading to death with intent". Two were charged with defiling a corpse.

During the trial, all the defendants denied the charges.

The judge allowed the public to attend the trial and the defendants to speak. However, he did not order an investigation into the allegations of mistreatment or falsified statements, and used those statements to reach guilty verdicts, said HRW.

There were no witnesses and no material evidence was presented compellingly linking the defendants to the deaths, said the human right groups.

The prosecution showed weapons that had been seized by police at the camp, but the court refused a request to allow DNA tests on them. The only evidence linking the defendants to these weapons were the disputed "confessions".

Furthermore, there was no autopsy report to explain how the security force agents had died, and police officers who recorded the statements were not called to court, despite defence requests.

The four human rights organisations said that trying civilians in military courts "violates human rights norms".

According to Moroccan law there is no full appeals procedure for defendants in a military court; their only recourse is through the Cassation Court. This court has had a petition from the 21 defendants since March 2013, but has not yet ruled on it.

In July, Morocco revised its military justice law to remove civilian defendants from the jurisdiction of military courts, but failed to mention the status of civilians already imprisoned by military courts.

"Morocco took the positive step this year of ending military trials for civilians," said Said Boumedouha, Amnesty International's deputy director for the Middle East and North Africa.

"Now it needs to bring justice to these long-term prisoners unfairly convicted in military court shortly before the new law took effect."