Middle East International, Issue 755, 21 July 2005


Security crack-down

from a correspondent


The civil society movement nurtured by Sahrawi activists in the Moroccan-controlled bulk of Western Sahara faces its toughest test yet in the wake of demonstrations that began in late May and continue sporadically (MEI 753).

Morocco's security apparatus has cracked down on run-of-the-mill protestors and committed civil rights activists alike, with extraordinary sentences being handed down by the courts and the detention and harassment of activists stepped up. Meanwhile, foreign delegations attempting to monitor the situation in the territory are being routinely turned back.

At the same time, Rabat is beginning to face a concerted challenge to its exploitation of Western Sahara's natural resources and as MEI went to press, it seemed Polisario was about to make the astute move of releasing the 400 Moroccan prisoners of war it still holds.

On 23 June a group of five men received sentences of between one and five years for participating in the unrest. They were tried without lawyers, say Sahrawi activists. If these sentences looked harsh, five days later three more detainees were jailed for 15-20 years. The charges on which they were convicted, despite no witnesses being presented, included taking part in armed gatherings. The only evidence produced was confessions, which the prisoners renounced.

In early July a further batch of 16 went for trial. One prisoner was too badly injured to attend court. The hearing was adjourned when the prisoners refused to recognize the authority of a Moroccan court operating in Western Sahara and then their lawyers walked out, complaining of lack of due process.
A week later three were acquitted but the rest received sentences of up to eight years.

During the demonstrations, civil rights activists, who began to organize systematically and openly after an upsurge of protests in Laayoune in autumn 1999, had been busy attending protests and transmitting news to the outside world and trying to safeguard the injured and arrested. Their success in building a Sahrawi political force in the territory and in southern Morocco has long worried Rabat and the security forces have taken into custody several leading figures, including Aminatou Haidar.
Haidar was one of the Sahrawi "disappeared", held for four years in the late 1980s and early 90s. Her seizure from hospital in June and detention in Laayoune's "Black Prison" prompted a 48-hour hunger strike by Sahrawi prisoners in several jails in the territory and Morocco.

Another well known figure, Hmad Hamad, was snatched from his refuge in a Spanish cultural centre but released after two days, the case having been covered by the Spanish press.

Spanish repercussions

Meanwhile, by mid-July the Moroccan authorities had refused entry to no less than six delegations, comprising Spanish regional politicians, representatives of human rights organizations and Sahrawi solidarity groups. When a Norwegian delegation managed to gain access by flying to Agadir then using road transport to Laayoune its members were rounded up and expelled.

On 6 July the Spanish parliament embarrassed the Zapatero government by refusing to countenance sending an official delegation to the territory. The parliamentarians said they had not been offered sufficient guarantees of freedom of movement or access by Rabat.

Spain's Socialist government is facing intense criticism at home for its tolerance of Morocco. Not only has Spain, as former colonial power in the Western Sahara, not pressed Rabat to accept the UN peace plan but it has stressed its "confidence" in the Moroccan government, criticized organizers of delegations to the territory and blessed Rabat's suggestion of a sanitized, official visit.

Fish and phosphates

The European Union has been negotiating a fishing agreement with Morocco in recent weeks. The last such agreement expired in acrimony several years ago. That deal, a successor to arrangements between Spain and Morocco made when Madrid handed Western Sahara over to Morocco and Mauritania in 1976, allowed by default fishing in Saharan waters by European vessels. As this could be construed as de facto recognition of Moroccan sovereignty, Polisario has been anxious to prevent it happening again. The independence movement received a fillip when the European Commission stated that any agreement will only cover waters over which Morocco has sovereignty or jurisdiction.

That development came just after a clutch of Norwegian investment funds followed a state fund in selling their shares in Kerr McGee, the US oil company, because it is operating in Western Saharan waters under a Moroccan reconnaissance licence. At the same time, campaigners in Europe have begun to target importers of Saharan phosphate rock marketed by Morocco's Office Cherifien des Phosphates. The Norwegian fertilizer company Yara has imported small quantities of phosphate from the Bou Craa mine since 1999 but has now said it will cease doing so.

Other companies are thought to be in the firing line and campaigners now believe they can enlist the support of the International Transport Workers Federation, opening the possibility of international deliveries of Saharan phosphates being blocked by industrial action.

Prisoners of war

During a political offensive in Spain, Polisario leader Mohamed Abdelaziz told Le Monde the movement would soon repatriate its remaining prisoners of war. This would be a politically wise move. Some of these men have been held for almost three decades and their health is poor. Polisario continued to hold them after the 1991 cease-fire, saying they would be released as part of an overall political settlement which never came. The movement also held them to try to press Morocco to provide information on hundreds of disappeared" Sahrawis.

However, the POWs have been a millstone around Polisario's neck. For many years Morocco did not acknowledge their existence, thus removing their currency in negotiations. Latterly, Rabat has trumpeted their plight in an attempt to deflect criticism of its own human rights record. Some 2,000 POWs have been released over the years and, by letting go the final few hundred, Polisario would free itself of a growing embarrassment and distraction.


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