- Amnesty International today released a report on the systematic human rights violations committed by the Moroccan occupying forces in Western Sahara. The human rights group in particular protests the detention of "prisoners of conscience" and the Moroccan denial of basic human rights in the occupied territory.
The report, released today, in part5icular looks into the fate of eight leading Sahrawi human rights activists that have been imprisoned since demonstrations and riots started in the occupied territory in May this year. Amnesty says it believes that "they may be prisoners of conscience." Two of them allege that they were tortured during questioning.
In many of the demonstrations since May, Sahrawi activists have expressed their support for the Polisario Front freedom movement 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," Amnesty noted.
Eight of the activists are currently in detention and awaiting trial. At least one protester has died "in suspicious circumstances" in October 2005. Amnesty had not been able to document torture, but goes far in indicating torture has been common in Moroccan detention centres.
The human rights group until the Sahrawi riot has welcomed on numerous occasions the positive steps which the Moroccan authorities have taken in the field of human rights in recent years. However, "their uncompromising stance in stamping out any form of dissent on the issue of Western Sahara remains a serious stain on their record. Events this year have set this into stark relief," the report says.
All eight human rights defenders Amnesty report about have actively campaigned against human rights abuses in Western 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 El Aaiun and other towns since May 2005.
They have now 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 unauthorised association.
Amnesty in its report says it believes that most of the charges against the Sahrawi activists are related to their past membership of the human rights organization Forum for Truth and Justice – Sahara Branch. This organisation was dissolved by Moroccan court order in June 2003 on the grounds that the organisation 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 organisation 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 organisations, including Amnesty International," the report says.
Although the Sahrawi human rights organisation was dissolved, the activists have continued individually to document human rights violations in Western Sahara, "thus putting themselves at risk of arrest and detention," Amnesty says.
Despite the charges being brought against them, Amnesty said it is "concerned that the eight activists appear to have been targeted because of their leading roles as human rights defenders and their exposure of abuses by Moroccan security forces, as well as their public advocacy of self-determination for the people of Western Sahara." Consequently, the group believes "they may be prisoners of conscience, in which case they should be released immediately and unconditionally."
In addition to the immediate release of these prisoners, Amnesty in its report called on the Moroccan occupying authorities to investigate the many allegations of torture against Sahrawi activists. Further, Morocco should "put an immediate end to the arrest, harassment and intimidation of human rights defenders," the report concludes.
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