Abdessalam Omar el Hassan is the interim president of the Association of the Relatives of Disappeared and Detained Saharawis (AFAPREDESA). Since the beginning of the conflict in Western Sahara in 1975, several hundred civilians have been arrested by the Moroccan police. It is believed 525 men and women have disappeared. They were never put on trial and are nowhere to be found on the books of the Moroccan prison administration. No-one can say whether some of them are still alive or not. Moreover, the peace plan signed between Morocco and the Polisario Front in 1991 under the aegis of the United Nations did not make it possible for this issue to make significant progress. Donaig Le Du (Radio France Internationale) met Abdessalam Omar el Hassan in one of the Saharawi refugee camps in southern Algeria on the occasion of the ninth congress of the Polisario Front on 29 August 95.

Hassan speaking: These people were never put on trial. They are not (words indistinct) in Morocco. They are somewhere, in centres such as Kalaat M'Gouna and Tazmamart, and there is a centre we know of in Laayoune. Some missing persons go through that centre systematically before going on to other centres. They are the 6th May barracks (French: casernes du 6 Mai) which are mobile intervention corps (sentence as heard). They are the antiriot corps.

(Q) Why do you think these 520 missing persons are still alive ?

(A) We cannot be sure that they are because we have not had any news from them since their arrests, but we hope that some of them are still alive, and this is what gives us hope and encourages us to continue our struggle until they reappear.

(Q) Is it just hope or have you got any precise information ? Do messages come from these prisons or is there absolute silence ?

(A) There has been absolute silence so far, unfortunately. In 1982, Morocco - which had previously always denied their existence - released 310 of these missing people who had been detained in secret centres, including in Agdz and Kalaat M'Gouna. Most of them are still under house arrest and have not enjoyed their right to go back to work. However, some have been able to join the Saharawi refugee camps but the remainder are still under pressure, and they can be imprisoned once again. This has been the case for about 10 of them, who have been imprisoned once again.

(Q) People who are in territories under Moroccan control ?

(A) Yes, in most cases. Some have been deported to the Moroccan interior, especially at the beginning of the identification process. Among other things, Morocco aims to prevent them from taking part in this process.

(Q) What can you do right now ? Are you working together with international organizations ?

(A) We are working in close cooperation with human rights non-governmental organizations, including Amnesty International. We also have a human rights office in Geneva which coordinates our action in Europe. We also have the support of many non-governmental organizations, including FEDEFAM, which is the Latin American Federation of Associations for the Relatives of the Detained and the Disappeared.

(Q) As for Moroccan human rights organizations, have contacts been established ?

(A) Yes, there is a first concerning this issue in that the Moroccan Human Rights Organisation (OMDH) has expressed its support for Saharawis inmates who were recently sentenced to between 15 and 20 years in jail by a military court in Rabat on 21st June this year. It attended the trial and published a report asking for their release.

(Q) I have heard that several dozen, a few hundred, Moroccan prisoners of war were released by Polisario but who are still here. Can you explain this to me ?

(A) That's right, this is a very regrettable case. Since 1989, 200 Moroccan prisoners have been released unconditionally by the Polisario front, but Morocco still won't allow them to return home.

(Q) Why ?

(A) We don't know. The CICR, which got in touch with Morocco - (changes thought) the latter answers that this is not a part of the peace plan. Unconditional releases are not a part (of the peace plan).

(Q) But Morocco has acknowledged the existence of these prisoners of war ?

(A) Not officially. So far, there has been no official acknowledgment of these prisoners, and what is regrettable is the fact that most of them are elderly people, sick people who need to go back home and to be close to their families. We think something should be done about this very sad case for which we, the families of Saharawis disappeared and detained, feel particular sympathy, and we would like these people to be able to return to their homes as soon as possible.

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