Morocco uses torture to silence Sahrawi activists
2009-09-10, Issue 447
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At 9:00 pm on Thursday 27 August, 19 year-old Nguia El Haouassi, a Sahrawi woman, a student and a human rights activist, was abducted while walking through Maatallah District in Laayoune. Laayoune is a large town in the northern Saguia al-Hamra region of the Moroccan occupied territory of Western Sahara. The news was first broken by the Saharawi Journalists and Writers Union (UPES) on the internet on Friday morning. Mohamed Brahim, a Sahrawi internet blogger also posted the story on Friday morning at 8:48 am.
Nguia’s testimony is that two police officers, Khalid Barakt and Aziz Anouch, blind-folded and subjected her to physical and psychological torture. These two police officers were then joined by additional Moroccan security agents who began interrogating her and removed her clothes. They asked what her political affiliations and views regarding the Morocco-Western Sahara conflict, and questioned her reasons for wanting to participate in a youth conflict resolution programme being run in Oxford, England earlier in August. Nguia’s ordeal was videotaped with the threat that she would be exposed naked on the internet if she revealed her ordeal and did not cease her human rights activities. Nguia states that she was also threatened with rape if she did not answer questions, and one of the high-ranking officers, part of the Moroccan DIAG secret service, threatened to kill her next time they caught her. She was then abandoned at around 2:00 am in the dark and left naked on the outskirts of Laayoune. She was able to find refuge with another Sahrawi family who clothed her and helped her reach her family.
What provoked Nguia’s ordeal? Just three weeks earlier, she was one of the ‘Oxford Six’, a group of Sahrawi students who had received invitations and visas from the British Consulate to come to Oxford, England to participate in a two-week ‘peace camp’, a youth conflict resolution programme, run by Talk Together, with numerous international academic and peacekeeping experts volunteering their time to participate.
On the point of departure on 5 August, the six students were arrested at the Agadir’s Al Massira airport and refused permission to travel, their mobile phones confiscated to prevent them for communicating with the outside world. They were then reportedly assaulted at three different locations – outside the airport, at a border police station, and again at the home of one of them. Amnesty International issued a full investigation and public statement. Talk Together’s website also provides detailed chronological information on the full story, the statement issued by the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office, and Amnesty International’s statements.
In 1975, as the Spanish colonisers began to withdraw, Morocco invaded the Western Sahara behind the veil of the Green March, annexing approximately 80 per cent of the territory. A sixteen-year war ensued between the Moroccans and the Sahrawi independence movement, the Polisario Front. A 1991 UN ceasefire was agreed and a referendum for Sahrawi self-determination was promised, but this has been repeatedly stalled or blocked by Morocco. For the last 34 years, an estimated 165,000 refugees have lived in the inhospitable Algerian desert in refugee camps administered by the Polisario Front. The Polisario formed their nation-state in exile in 1976, the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR), and control the remaining 20 per cent of the Western Sahara, often called the ‘Free Zone’ or ‘Liberated Territories’. The Polisario continues to seek self-determination and return to their homeland. The remaining Sahrawi population live under Moroccan occupation. Each side of the Sahrawi population is separated from each other by the Berm, a heavily land-mined and fortified sand wall built by the Moroccans.
Nguia’s ordeal was immediately picked up by the global network of Western Sahara campaigners, NGOs and human rights organisations, with postings appearing on the internet over the weekend, such as Stefan Simanowitz, chair of the global campaigning initiative, the Free Western Sahara Network, and two press statements have been issued.
Nguia’s story is one of many episodes of Moroccan police brutality that occur every year. As Simanowitz writes, ‘For over three decades…serious concerns about human rights violations against the Saharawis who have remained in Western Sahara have been raised by UN High Commissioner for Human rights and numerous human rights organisations. A 2008 report by Human Rights Watch found that Morocco violated the rights to expression, association, and assembly in the Western Sahara. An Amnesty International report of the same year found that “politically motivated administrative impediments have been used to prevent human rights groups obtaining legal registration and curtailing their scope of activities.” There is also widespread evidence of the use of torture.’
Nguia is lucky to have returned home to her family, many others have simply disappeared. According to human rights organisations, over 500 indigenous Sahrawi have ‘disappeared’ for challenging the Moroccan occupation of Western Sahara, most of them taking place up until the signing the UN peace plan for a referendum in 1991. Sunday 30 August 2009 marked the 26th International Day of the Disappeared. Yahiaoui Lamine, the Polisario representative for the United Kingdom and Ireland, says ‘Since 1975 the Sahrawi people have been the victims of disappearances at the hands of the Moroccan authorities. Campaigning tirelessly is the Association for the Families of Sahrawi Prisoners and the Disappeared (AFAPREDESA) who have been using all their resources to expose the deplorable human-rights situation, Forced disappearance constitutes one of the cruellest forms of psychological torture to the relatives of a missing person.’
There are an increasing number of Sahrawi student-led internet blogs which record these human rights abuses and upload video clips as evidence. One such site has Hayat Rguibi’s videoed testimony of her rape by Moroccan police, and postings about the killings of two male Sahrawi students, Houssein Abdessadik Alktaif and Khaya Baba Abdelaziz, in December 2008 in Agadir, Morocco.
Another site has video clips commentated on by Rabab Amidane, a young female human rights student activist who won the Norwegian 2009 Student Peace Prize. Rabab’s video clips record Moroccan police violence at student demonstations. Also both UPES and Reuters report that another young Sahrawi human rights activist, Ennaama Asfari, was sentenced on Thursday 27 August 2009 to four month’s imprisonment ‘because of his political views in favour of self-determination of people of Western Sahara’. This prompted the Sahrawi President Mohamed Abdelaziz, to write to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon to call for the establishment of a mechanism to ensure the protection of human rights of the Sahrawi in the Moroccan occupied territories of Western Sahara.
Yahiaoui Lamine says ‘The international community ought to react quickly to stop these atrocities. The double standard in dealing with human rights must come to an end, and the human dimension referred to by the United Nation’s Security Council Resolution 1871 must have substance’. The United Nations Mission for a Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO) has been increasingly under pressure from campaigners and a number of governments to properly assume their responsibilities to monitor these human rights violations in the Moroccan occupied territory. Last time the issue was raised in the UN Security Council, the suggestion was blocked by France.
Until now, Morocco has fairly successfully kept the beatings and killings of Sahrawi students in the Occupied Territories beneath the radar of the global media. But now the internet, mobile phones and video uploading have played a crucial part in getting evidence through Morocco’s propaganda wall, thereby enabling campaigners and analysts to monitor and examine the situation. The vast network of NGOs, academics and analysts provides a literary ‘Green Line’ between Morocco’s ‘tools of persuasion’ and – as Pazzanita so aptly put it – the ‘antidote to propaganda’ (1994: 274).
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* Konstantina Isidoros is a doctoral researcher in Social Anthropology at the
University of Oxford. Her field of specialisation is on nomadic pastoralism
across the Sahara Desert with a particular interest in the hassaniyya-speaking
Sahrawi nomads of the western Sahara.
* Please send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org or comment online at Pambazuka News.
 http://asvdh.net/english/?p=542 and http://www.amnesty.org
 http://freesahara.ning.com and www.en.afrik.com
 www.vest-sahara.no, a Norwegian NGO and campaigner for Western Sahara
 http://www.un.org/News/Press/docs/2009/sc9650.doc.htm The resolution was passed on 30 April 2009.
 Pazzanita, A.G. 1994. ‘Morocco versus Polisario: A Political Interpretation’. The Journal of Modern African Studies. 32 (2). June. pp.265-278.
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