In an Aug. 1 statement, Amnesty International expresses concern about the recent arrest and detention of six human rights defenders in Western Sahara, and reports that two of them had been tortured. Some of those arrested are former “disappeared”, others are former prisoners of conscience. All six are long-standing human rights defenders who have been instrumental in collecting and disseminating information about rights violations during the recent wave of pro-independence protests in the Moroccan-occupied territory.
The activists are under investigation for allegedly participating in or promoting an “armed gathering.” Amnesty fears they have been targeted because of their human rights work, or their openly held views in favour of independence of Western Sahara.
Two of the men, Houssein Lidri and Brahim Noumria, were reportedly tortured by security officers in a secret detention centre in Laayoune, on July 20, the day of their arrest. Writes Amnesty: “They allege that they were suspended in contorted positions with their hands tied and their eyes blindfolded, beaten on sensitive parts of the body and that a chemical substance was poured on them and they were burnt with cigarettes and open flames. Although both men informed the judicial authorities on 21 July that they had been subjected to torture, no investigation into these allegations is known to have been opened. Houssein Lidri was reportedly tortured again for several hours on 22 July.”
On the day before his arrest, Houssein Lidri had given an interview to the Al-Jazeera TV on the arrest of another human rights activist, Ali Salem Tamek, on July 18. Ali Salem Tamek had been arrested upon arrival at Laayoune airport after an extended stay in Europe where he had spoken publicly of recent events in Western Sahara and advocated independence for the territory. He was abroad while the demonstrations occurred, but is also under investigation for his alleged role in the protests. Another human rights defender, Aminatou Haidar, has been in detention since June 17 and is facing trial on charges including violence against public servants and participation in an armed gathering.
The recent arrests take place in the context of repression of politically-charged demonstrations, which began in late May. Moroccan security forces were accused of ill-treating detained protesters. Amnesty wrote to the Moroccan authorities on June 21 urging them to investigate these allegations, but has so far received no response. Twenty-one protesters have since been sentenced to prison terms of up to 20 years on such charges as formation of a criminal gang, use of weapons, sabotage of public property and violence against public servants on duty.
Amnesty International fears that the activists have been arrested because of their reporting on recent rights violations. There were earlier reports that local rights defenders and journalists had been assaulted, harassed or intimidated by officials, and in some cases briefly detained. The Moroccan authorities also prevented several international delegations seeking to investigate what occurred during the unrest from entering Western Sahara.
As Jacob Mundy writes in a commentary for CorpWatch, the situation in Western Sahara is complicated by Morocco’s granting of offshore oil exploration rights to the US company Kerr McGee. Although Kerr McGee officiallt claims neutrality in the conflict. But the contract may constitute an implicit recognition of Morocco’s sopveriegnty over the territory, which is officially recognized by no government on earth. Notes Mundy:
Kerr-McGee’s stockholders may also be less than fully informed about the risks of investing in a contested territory. In its 2004 report and a letter to shareholders, Morocco-but not Western Sahara–appears under a map titled “Targeting World Class Prospects.” And although the words “Western Sahara” appeared in Kerr-McGee’s 2003 report, the reference was omitted in the 2004 version.
See also Western Sahara Online.
African Studies Center Western Sahara Page
See our last post on Western Sahara.