Contact: Derek Karchner or Gabe Neville, 202 225-2411
For Immediate Release
August 17, 2005
Congressmen commend planned release of Moroccan POWs
Washington-Congressmen Joe Pitts (R, PA-16) and Donald Payne (D, NJ-10) today commended the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic, Western Sahara's government-in-exile, upon hearing of its plan to release the remaining Moroccan prisoners of war tomorrow morning. Congressman Pitts has visited the Sahrawi refugee camps several times and has been involved with the issue since coming to Congress in 1997.
"I would like to commend the Sahrawis on taking this crucial step in moving closer to a referendum on the future of Western Sahara," said Congressman Pitts, who visited these POWs in the past. "By releasing these prisoners, the Sahrawis have taken away one more excuse Morocco has used to block a free, fair, and transparent referendum on the future of Western Sahara."
Congressman Payne, ranking member of the Africa Subcommittee added, "This is certainly a step forward and it is my hope that the release of Moroccan POW's by the Polisario will soon lead to the long-delayed referendum for the Sahrawi people."
Congressman Pitts continued, "The King now has a historic opportunity to prove that his nation is willing to settle this dispute, proof his government has been unwilling to offer. Morocco should immediately release or account for the 150 Sahrawi POWs and the more than 1,700 Sahrawi civilians who have disappeared since the Kingdom's illegal occupation of Western Sahara began. The international community, led by the United States, should use this opportunity to help settle the world's last colonial dispute.
"The Sahrawis, just like everyone else, have a right to self-determination. That right has been robbed by colonial powers- first Spain and now Morocco. All they want is to vote. They have sacrificed a great deal because we promised it to them. They are a peaceful, democratic people. This is our chance to honor their commitment to peace and democracy. We much follow-through on the promises we've made to these suffering people. There's no excuse for inaction," said Congressman Pitts.
Western Sahara was a Spanish colony until Spain withdrew in 1975. Sahrawi hopes for independence were dashed when Morocco promptly invaded, an action ruled illegal by the UN's International Court of Justice in 1975. A 1991 UN-brokered cease-fire agreement promised a referendum for national self-determination, but Morocco has spent the succeeding fourteen years doing everything in its power to maintain control over the land and prevent the referendum from actually taking place.
The Sahrawis have established a constitution and democratic elections. Theirs is a moderate Arab society governed by elected leaders in which all people, including women, have equal rights. The Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (a government-in-exile) is recognized by the Organization of African Unity and by more than 75 individual nations as the legitimate government of Western Sahara.
For more information, visit Congressman Pitts' Western Sahara site: http://www.house.gov/pitts/initiatives/humanrights/countries/westernsahara.htm