Pambazuka News

Western Saharan hunger strikers: Morocco's territorial and human rights violations

Konstantina Isidoros

2010-04-15, Issue 477

cc UN Photos
As 36 imprisoned Saharawi activists continue a hunger strike from seven Moroccan jails, Konstantina Isidoros writes of the 'groundswell of international condemnation of Morocco's behaviour'. Protesting against Morocco's longstanding occupation of Western Sahara and the human rights abuses suffered by the indigenous Saharawi population, the hunger strikers' action represents the latest peaceful challenge to the Moroccan state's illegal claims on Western Sahara, stresses Isidoros, from individuals widely recognised as 'prisoners of conscience'.

Morocco's latest human rights violations yet again display its characteristic contribution to the Western Sahara conflict. These insights show the extremes to which Morocco exercises its 'tools of persuasion'.

36 Saharawi human rights defenders across seven Moroccan jails are on hunger strike as political prisoners of conscience. The wave of hunger strikes began on 18 March, with the first group now reaching their 26th day, and are reported as suffering desperately critical symptoms of medical deterioration.[1] International observers and local NGOs monitoring the hunger strikes are warning of the risk of an imminent humanitarian tragedy and an urgent need to intervene for the immediate release of the Saharawi prisoners. Fears about their critical medical conditions suggest they are nearing irreversible deterioration that could result in death, exacerbated by chronic illnesses resulting from previous years of incarceration and beatings in these Moroccan prisons.

They are protesting against Morocco's illegal invasion and occupation of Western Sahara, human rights violations against the indigenous Saharawi population, and serious judicial violations such as arbitrary arrest, 'disappearance', false imprisonment, unfair trials and torture.[2] Morocco persistently ignores the International Court of Justice's (ICJ) 1975 advisory opinion, which rejected Morocco's claims over Western Sahara and reaffirmed indigenous Saharawi rights to decolonisation and self-determination.

A groundswell of international condemnation of Morocco's behaviour has triggered the launch of fresh worldwide appeals. Western Sahara Campaign (with over 100 high profile signatories including Frank Ruddy, former deputy chairman of the United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara) and Western Sahara Resource Watch each sent open letters to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon demanding that the United Nations monitor Morocco's human rights violations,[3] and halt Morocco's illegal territorial violations.[4] Human Rights Watch and the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice & Human Rights (RFK Center) also sent a joint letter to Ban.[5] Amnesty International sent their statement direct to the Moroccan authorities, stating 'Morocco must end harassment of Saharawi activists'.[6]

Many of these Saharawi human rights advocates are recipients of numerous peace prizes, including a nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize. Yet the Moroccan authorities habitually use a medieval vocabulary to make ambiguous claims of 'treason' by 'collaboration with the enemy and endangering state security'.


Observers and campaigners have reported the persistent harassment of Saharawi activists as an 'escalating wave of repression by Moroccan authorities'.[7][8] On 17 November 2009, Amnesty International issued a public statement saying:

'The Moroccan authorities appear to be adopting an increasingly repressive approach to the exercise of these rights by Sahrawis, in breach of their obligations under international human rights treaties, notably the ICCPR [International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights], and the UN Declaration on the Right and Responsibility of Individuals, Groups and Organs of Society to Promote and Protect Universally Recognized Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, adopted by the UN General Assembly on 9 December 1998.'[9]

Of particular concern was the Moroccan king's speech on 6 November 2009.[10] His vocabulary was unprecedented in its hostility towards, and explicit incitement of aggression against the Saharawi. It accused them of treachery and declared that all objections to Morocco's ambitions were acts of 'terrorism'. Campaigners have construed this language as an overt incitement of royally sanctioned future violence. The speech was followed by the furious response of British filmmakers Paul Laverty and Ken Loach in which they succinctly suggested that 'the king and his government respect international law and join the civilised world'.[11]

Even international observers and human rights lawyers are obstructed by Moroccan authorities from witnessing judicial processes and are at risk of violations by Moroccan police. Human Rights Watch formally reported cases of Moroccan obstruction of foreign journalists and human rights lawyers seeking access to witness Saharawi trials between 19 October and 21 November 2009.[12] ASVDH's (Sahrawi Association of Victims of Grave Human Rights Violations Committed by the Moroccan State) website is uploading breaking news of fresh assaults on international observers. For example, a press release dated 8 April reports: 'two international observers, Mr Rafael Antorrena and Berta Herranz, were arrested and taken to an unknown destination'.[13]


On 7 April, Moroccan settlers attacked 11 Saharawi human rights advocates at Layouune airport in the Moroccan Occupied Territory of Western Sahara, beating and stripping them naked under orders of the Moroccan security services.[14] The 'Saharawi 11' had just landed at Layouune airport from a humanitarian visit to the Saharawi refugee camps on the other side of the Moroccan Berm.[15] A group of international observers had accompanied the 'Saharawi 11', but the Moroccan authorities prevented them from booking the same flight to obstruct the presence of international witnesses.

This echoes the September 2009 'Casablanca 7' story, when a separate group of seven Saharawi human rights advocates made the same trip, but were arrested by Moroccan secret service police on arrival at Casablanca airport on 8 October 2009.[16] Six of the '7' remain incarcerated in Salé prison, Rabat, having been there indefinitely for six months awaiting trial in a military court.

One of the 'Casablanca 7' hunger strikers, Rachid Sghir, had previously been severely beaten under interrogation by the Moroccan police, days after giving an interview to BBC producer Sam Bagnall and presenter Simon Reeves for the BBC's documentary Tropic of Cancer (broadcast on 21 March 2010 in the UK).[17] On the BBC's website, Bagnall verifies that Moroccan secret police had been following the film crew, so they arranged a meeting with Rachid and his human rights associates in a safe house to record the interview about Morocco's repressive occupation of Western Sahara.[18]

Amnesty International's January 2010 appeal was for the case of Ahmed Mahmoud Haddi, who experienced enforced disappearance, is awaiting trial and is believed to have been tortured while in custody.[19]


Six of the Salé-imprisoned 'Casablanca 7' (one is very ill) began their hunger strikes from 18 March 2010 in protest of their indefinite imprisonment and lack of clear charges. These are Ali Salem Tamek, Brahim Dahane, Yehdih Ettarrouzi, Ahmed Naciri, Saleh Labaihi and Rachid Sghayer.

Brahim Dahanne, Dagje Lachgar, Ali Salem Tamek, Ahmed Nassiri, Saleh Labihi, Rachid Sghaer, Yahdih Ettarouzi (cc asvdh)

The hunger strikers issued this statement on 18 March:

'Our detention has been condemned by governments and parliaments around the world as well as human rights organisations, trade unions and civil society groups. We are being persecuted for exercising our right to express political opinion and engage in legitimate activities to protect the human rights of our people. In protest at our detention we are today beginning an open hunger strike in order to expedite our claim to a fair trial and our release without condition. We call on democratic forces in the world to support our fight for our release and that of all Saharawi political prisoners held in Moroccan jails.'

Another 19 hunger strikers are in Tiznit prison and their hunger strikes started from 20 March. These are Moustapha Abd-Dayem, Hreish Hassan, Mohamed Berkaoui, Bachir Isamïli, Mohamed Taghioullah Fekallah, Brahim Khalil Meghimiah, Khalihenna Abouhassan, Moulay Ali Bouamoud, Fadli Binhau, Mahmud Aboughassem, Sheiahu Hamza, Fathi Sid Ahmed, Daihani Abdallah, Mohamed Salami, Sawakh Djamal, Mahdjub Ailal, Hassan Mohamed Lehassen, Nourdinne Taher and Lehmam Salama.

And there are a further three hunger strikers in Boulmharez prison in Marrakech (El Waaban Said, Brahim Bariaz and Ali Salem Ablag), three in Layouune prison (Bachri Bentaleb, Ameidan Chej and Mohamed Berkan),[20] two in Taroudant prison (Louali Amaidan and Jalad Hasan), two in Kenitra prison (Laaseiri Salec and Amaidan Saleh) and one in Bensliman prison (Hasan Abdelahi).[21]

Detailed medical information from the hunger-strike monitoring groups highlights the critical symptoms experienced by the hunger strikers as loss of consciousness, fatigue, migraines, asthma, acute cardiac and intestinal pain, asthma, vomiting and diarrhoea. Blood pressure and sugar levels are reported as decreasing alarmingly, with growing kidney, liver and gallbladder complications.

The Saharawi Lawyers Association has also reported cases of neglect by Moroccan prison administrations, lack of proper medical assistance from prison clinics and staff, and Saharawi prisoner Hassan Abdullah in Bin Sliman is said to have been severely beaten by Moroccan prisoners at the incitement of prison staff.


A groundswell of international publicity and solidarity for the Saharawi is mounting against Morocco's territorial and human rights violations in its illegally occupied territory.

On 13 April, Human Rights Watch and the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice & Human Rights (RFK Center) sent their joint letter supporting a UN mandate for human rights monitoring. They also remind Ban Ki-moon that the primary objective of the 1991 United Nations-brokered ceasefire and installation of MINURSO, the UN peacekeeping force, was to implement a referendum on Saharawi self-determination, which has still not taken place 19 years later.

Amnesty International's 9 April press release documents these recent Moroccan violations. Malcolm Smart, Amnesty's director for the Middle East and North Africa programme, says: 'We are increasingly concerned for the health of these detainees as they continue with their protest… In fact, we consider them prisoners of conscience imprisoned for the peaceful exercise of freedom of expression, and we are urging the Moroccan authorities to release them immediately and unconditionally.'[22]

On 6 April an open letter was sent to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon calling for the UN to monitor Morocco's human rights violations in its illegally occupied territory of Western Sahara. MINURSO is the UN peacekeeping mission for Western Sahara, and is the only contemporary UN mission in the world without a mandate to monitor human rights. Over 100 organisations and high-profile individuals such as parliamentarians, trade unions, celebrities, NGOs, campaign groups, academics and journalists have acted as signatories to the appeal. These include Frank Ruddy, former deputy chair of the United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO), film director Ken Loach, renowned British actress and MP Glenda Jackson, Gare Smith, former principal deputy assistant secretary of state, US State Department, and the UK trade unions TUC (Trades Union Congress) and UNITE.

On 29 March, Western Sahara Resource Watch sent a letter to Ban Ki-moon additionally asking for the UN to halt Morocco's territorial violations of plunder and exploitation of Western Sahara's natural resources. This letter highlights how 'Morocco's activities are carried out in contravention of a raft of UN General Assembly resolutions including resolutions 62/113, 62/120, 63/102, 63/111, 64/98 and 64/99, amongst others, as well as its international obligations pursuant to Article 1 of both the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. As established with great clarity by the UN Legal Counsel in 2002: "… if further exploration and exploitation activities were to proceed in disregard of the wishes and interests of the people of Western Sahara, they would be in violation of the principles of international law applicable to mineral resource activities in Non-Self-Governing Territories."'

In April 2009, both Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International released their public statements addressed to the United Nations Security Council urging the UN to monitor human rights in Western Sahara. Moreover, in a 2006 report, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) also called for the implementation of urgent measures to protect human rights.


It has only been four months since the last high-profile hunger strike of Aminatou Haidar, the 'Saharawi Ghandi', grabbed the attention of world media. Frantic multi-country negotiations were fuelled by international politicians, civil society campaign groups and celebrities such as Spanish film director Pedro Almodóvar and actor Javier Bardém (Penélope Cruz's fiancé).

Haidar was returning from New York in November 2009, having received the Train Foundation's Civil Courage human rights award, when Moroccan authorities confiscated her passport, denied her entry and forced her back to Lanzarote airport. She spent 32 days on hunger strike on the floor of Lanzarote airport, reaching a life-threatening stage of medical deterioration before the full media glare finally forced Morocco to back peddle. Human Rights Watch declared that her forced expulsion breached article 12 (4) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which states that no one can be arbitrarily deprived of the right to enter their own country; article 2 of protocol 4 of the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms; and article 12 (2) of the ICCPR, which also stipulates that everyone shall be free to leave any country.[23]

A selection of examples of the numerous Moroccan violations is as follows. On 21 November 2009, Mohamed Baikam and Ahmed Salem Fahime were arrested at the Mauritanian border and reportedly tortured. Also in November, Abdul Rahman Bougarfa was arrested when attempting to travel to Barcelona to attend an international meeting and Moroccan authorities confiscated his passport.[24] September 2009 saw over 20 documented reports of police torture being forwarded to Amnesty International: e.g., Boujdour Sultana Khayia had her arm broken by police; Mohamed Brakan (21 years old) was thrown from the roof of a house by police; Mohamed Tahil was assaulted by police and his nose broken; and Ayzan Amydan arrested.[25]

Excessive violence is regularly used at peaceful Saharawi protests. A young Saharawi student, Hamdi Lembarki, died after being savagely beaten by security forces on 30 October 2005. Internet video uploads and blogs provide evidence of the Moroccan police excessively using teargas and batons at peaceful protests by university students during 2008 and 2009. In August 2009, six Saharawi teenagers (the 'Oxford Six') were arrested and prevented from flying to a peace camp in the UK, and a 19-year-old female student Nguia El Haouassi was abducted by Moroccan police (see Pambazuka News, 10 October 2009).[26]


In 1975, as Spanish colonisers withdrew from Western Sahara, Morocco's claims to territorial sovereignty of Western Sahara were rejected outright by the International Court of Justice (ICJ). Its 'Advisory Opinion' of 16 October 1975 concluded that there was no tie of territorial sovereignty between the territory of Western Sahara and the kingdom of Morocco or the Mauritanian entity.[27] Yet Morocco has always disobeyed international law; shortly after the ICJ ruling was published, it invaded Western Sahara and annexed approximately 80 per cent of the territory which is now called the Moroccan Occupied Territory of Western Sahara (not the 'Moroccan Sahara' or 'Moroccan Southern Provinces', as Morocco desperately tries to name it) (Hodges 1983; Damis 1983; Shelley 2004). For the last 34 years, an estimated 165,000 refugees have lived in exile in refugee camps administered by the Polisario Front on the Algerian desert border town of Tindouf. The Polisario formed their nation-state in exile in 1976, the Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR), and control the remaining 20 per cent of the Western Sahara, called the 'Free Zone' or 'Liberated Territory'. The Polisario continues to seek self-determination and a return to homeland for the Saharawi people.

Since its 1975 invasion, Morocco has subverted the decolonisation process by moving Moroccan settlers into the occupied territory, defied more than 100 UN resolutions on the Saharawi people's right to self-determination, and still today, continues to refuse independence to the indigenous Saharawi population. Since the 1991 ceasefire, Morocco has pursued this territorial violation of a neighbouring nation-state by using the idiom of 'diplomacy' through political manoeuvrings within US and French corridors of power with the intent to influence opinion in its favour.

A major driving force behind Morocco's occupation of Western Sahara is the exploitation of valuable natural resources such as gas, oil, phosphates and Atlantic fishing reserves. Morocco's illegal economic exploitation is another crisis, as it provides Morocco with commercial interests to 'do business' in the occupied territory. The illegal commercial exploitation of Western Sahara's natural resources is exacerbated by complicit foreign governments and companies who enter into illegal business deals with Moroccan companies or authorities in the occupied territory, such as for example the EU (European Union) purchase of Western Sahara fishing permits from Morocco and the violation of US administration policy by the United States Trade and Development Agency's funding of Moroccan development projects which support Moroccan industries on the occupied land of Western Sahara. The Western Sahara Resource Watch research group is a foremost monitor of Morocco's exploitation activities and a respected source for accurate data.[28]



* Konstantina Isidoros is a doctoral researcher in anthropology at the University of Oxford. Her field of study is the Sahara desert with a special interest in the Hassaniya-speaking populations of Western Sahara. The views expressed in this paper are those of the author. This document is an original transcript and copyright property of the author.
* © Konstantina Isidoros
* Please send comments to [email protected] or comment online at Pambazuka News.

[1] The Sahrawi Association of Victims of Grave Human Rights Violations Committed by the Moroccan State (ASVDH):
[2] For history see Free Western Sahara Network:; The Saharawi Association of Victims of Grave Human Rights Violations Committed by the Moroccan State; Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights:; Amnesty International library for 'Morocco/Western Sahara':
[3] See Western Sahara Campaign UK for the full letter and list of signatories:
[4] See Western Sahara Resource Watch, who closely monitor Morocco's plunder of Western Sahara:
[9] Amnesty International public statement 17 November 2009:MDE 29/012/2009.
[14]; Australia Western Sahara Association:
[15] The Berm is Morocco's 1553 mile-long militarised sand wall and is heavily land-mined. Morocco built it with US assistance:;
[16] Amnesty International report:
[17] To see the Western Sahara portion of the BBC's Tropic of Cancer:
[19] Amnesty International urgent action statement 15 January 2010: MDE 29/004/2010.
[20] This prison is called Carcel Negra, meaning Black Prison.
[21] List of prisoners and hunger strike start dates provided by the Hunger Strike Monitoring Committee of ASVDH (approved by The Saharawi Journalists and Writers Union, UPES,
[25] 23 September 2009 (Press release marking International Peace Day).
[27] The 1975 ICJ's legal opinion on the Western Sahara stated that the court could not find 'any legal tie of territorial sovereignty between Western Sahara and the Moroccan State'. And with respect to both Mauritanian and Moroccan claims, 'the materials and information presented to [the Court] do not establish any tie of territorial sovereignty between the territory of Western Sahara and the Kingdom of Morocco or the Mauritanian entity'. See also: Mundy, Jacob. The Question of Sovereignty in the Western Sahara Conflict. First presented as Conference Paper, June 2008.


Below is a sample bibliography of respected authors, campaigners and trusted analyses on the Western Sahara. Given that Morocco has a long history of manipulating facts and events regarding their illegal invasion of the Western Sahara, this bibliography consists of publications that help to provide, as Pazzanita so aptly termed it, the 'antidote to propaganda' (Pazzanita 1994). The Zunes & Mundy book due out in June 2010 is the new and much awaited authoritative publication since the Hodges, Damis and Shelley books.

To receive up-to-date and accurate Western Sahara news and support the worldwide appeal, please join:

Western Sahara Campaign UK (
Free Western Sahara Network (
Sandblast (
Western Sahara Resource Watch (
Australia Western Sahara Association (
The Western Sahara Association in California (
Spanish Group of pro-Saharawi Associations (
Norwegian Support Committee for the Western Sahara (
Illegal EU-Moroccan Fisheries Agreement (
Amnesty International (
Human Rights Watch (
Landmine Action de-mining programme in Western Sahara (
Two of the important analytical blogs are and


Damis, J. 1983. Conflict in Northwest Africa: The Western Sahara Dispute. California: Hoover Institution Press.

Farah, Randa. 2003. 'Western Sahara and Palestine: Shared Refugee Experiences.' Forced Migration Review. Oxford: Refugee Studies Centre with the Norwegian Refugee Council/Global IDP Project. January, 16: 20-23.

Franck, T.M. 1976. 'The Stealing of the Sahara'. American Society of International Law.

Hodges, Tony. 1983. Western Sahara: Roots of a Desert War. Westport, Conn.: L. Hill.

International Court of Justice. Reports of Judgements, Advisory Opinions and Orders: Western Sahara. Advisory Opinion of 16 October 1975. (See also related Oral Reports, Written Statements, Press Releases, Orders).

Mundy, Jacob. 'The Question of Sovereignty in the Western Sahara Conflict'. June 2008. Paper presented at the International Conference of the Jurists for Western Sahara, La Cuestión del Sáhara Occidental en El Marco Jurídico Internacional, Las Palmas, Canary Islands.

Mundy, Jacob. 2006. 'Neutrality or Complicity? The United States and the Moroccan Takeover of Spanish Sahara'. Journal of North African Studies. 11 (3). pp.275–306.

Mundy, Jacob. 'Thirty years of conflict: How the US and Morocco seized the Spanish Sahara'. January 2006. Le Monde diplomatique.

Mundy, Jacob. 2004. 'Stubborn Stalemate in Western Sahara'. Middle East Report Online.

Pazzanita, Anthony G. 1994. 'Morocco versus Polisario: A Political Interpretation'. The Journal of Modern African Studies. 32 (2). June. pp.265-278.

Shelley, Toby. 2004. Endgame in the Western Sahara: What Future for Africa's Last Colony? New York: Zed.

Zunes, Stephen. and Mundy, Jacob. (forthcoming: June 2010). Western Sahara: War, Nationalism and Conflict Irresolution. Syracuse University Press. Quote referenced to Agence France Press, 11 April 2007.

Zunes, Stephen. 2007. 'The Future of Western Sahara.' Foreign Policy in Focus.

Zunes, Stephen. 2006. 'Western Sahara: The Other Occupation.' Tikkun Vol 21 No. 1, January 2006.

Zunes, Stephen. 1998. 'Morocco and Western Sahara'. Foreign Policy In Focus.

Zoubir, Yahia H. September 2009. 'The United States and Maghreb–Sahel Security.' International Affairs. Volume 85 Issue 5, pp. 977 – 995

Zoubir, Yahia H. 'Stalement in Western Sahara: Ending International Legality'. Middle East Policy Council Journal. Volume XIV: 4. Winter 2007.