Thursday, November 24, 2005

Sahrawi human rights defenders awaiting trial

Since May 2005, the Sahara, particularly the town of Laayoune, has been rocked by a series of demonstrations. In many of them, Sahrawi demonstrators have expressed their support for the Polisario Front or called for independence from Morocco. These views are anathema to the Moroccan authorities, which have not only responded in a heavy-handed manner to the protests, thereby exacerbating tensions, but also widened the scope of the repression by arresting and detaining long standing human rights activists who were monitoring and disseminating information on the crackdown.

Eight of the activists are currently in detention and awaiting trial. Two of them allege that they were tortured during questioning.

Human rights defenders in the dock

Eight Sahrawi human rights defenders are currently detained in Laayoune Civil Prison awaiting trial. Seven of them who were arrested between June and August 2005 – Aminatou Haidar, Ali-Salem Tamek, Mohamed El-Moutaouakil, Houssein Lidri, Brahim Noumria, Larbi Messaoud and H’mad Hammad – are due to appear before the Court of Appeal in Laayoune on 30 November 2005, together with seven other accused who are being prosecuted for participating in demonstrations calling for self-determination for the people of Western Sahara. The eighth activist, Brahim Dahane, who was arrested on 30 October 2005, is also facing charges related to his human rights activities but his case remains under judicial investigation and he is expected to be brought to trial separately.

All eight human rights defenders have actively campaigned against human rights abuses in the Sahara for several years. Most recently, they have been instrumental in collecting and disseminating information about human rights violations committed by Moroccan forces against Sahrawi protesters in the context of demonstrations in Laayoune and other towns and cities in Morocco including the Sahara since May 2005. They have been charged on various counts related to participating in and inciting violent protest activities, but deny the accusations.

Each of them has also been charged with belonging to an unauthorized association. In the case of Mohamed El-Moutaouakil, Houssein Lidri, Brahim Noumria, Larbi Messaoud and H’mad Hammad, the charge may be related to their past membership of the human rights organization Forum for Truth and Justice – Sahara Branch. This organization was dissolved by court order in June 2003 on the grounds that the organization had undertaken illegal activities likely to disturb public order and undermine the territorial integrity of Morocco. The activities described as illegal appeared to relate solely to members of the organization exercising their right to express their opinions on self-determination for the people of Western Sahara, and disseminating views on human rights issues to outside bodies such as international human rights organizations. Although their organization was dissolved, they, as well as Aminatou Haidar and Ali-Salem Tamek, have continued individually to document human rights violations in the Sahara, thus putting themselves at risk of arrest and detention.

In the case of Brahim Dahane, whose trial date is not yet known to have been set, the charge is believed to relate to the Sahrawi Association of Victims of Grave Human Rights Violations Committed by the Moroccan State, a non-governmental organization of which he is president. He and a number of fellow activists have been seeking to register the organization in recent months, but have yet to complete the process due to a series of what appear to be politically-motivated administrative obstacles.

Two of the human rights defenders, Houssein Lidri and Brahim Noumria, allege that they were tortured during questioning by the Moroccan security forces. The Moroccan authorities say they have opened an investigation into these allegations which has not yet been completed.


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