December 19, 2008


This report is in two parts. Part one examines present-day human rights conditions in Western Sahara. Part two examines present-day human rights conditions in the Sahrawi refugee camps administered by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Saguia el-Hamra and Rio de Oro (Polisario), the Sahrawi independence organization, near Tindouf, Algeria.

For Western Sahara, the focus of Human Rights Watch's investigation is the right of persons to speak, assemble, and associate on behalf of self-determination for the Sahrawi people and on behalf of their human rights. We found that Moroccan authorities repress this right through laws penalizing affronts to Morocco's "territorial integrity," through arbitrary arrests, unfair trials, restrictions on associations and assemblies, and through police violence and harassment that goes unpunished.

For the refugee camps in Tindouf, the focus is freedom of expression and of movement. We found that at the present time, the Polisario effectively marginalizes those who directly challenge its leadership or general political orientation, but it does not imprison them. It allows residents to criticize its day-to-day administration of camp affairs. In practice, camp residents are able to leave the camps, via Mauritania, if they wish to do so. However, fear and social pressure keeps those who plan to resettle in Western Sahara from disclosing their plans before leaving.

The rights of residents of the Tindouf camps remain vulnerable due to the isolation of the camps; the lack of regular, on-the-ground human rights monitoring; and the lack of oversight by the host country of Algeria to ensure the human rights of Sahrawis living in Polisario-run camps on Algerian soil. The United Nations Security Council should establish a mechanism for regular observing and reporting on human rights conditions both in Western Sahara and in the Tindouf refugee camps.

This report does not cover past abuses, an important subject in its own right that merits attention today. Although civil and political human rights conditions have improved in the Tindouf camps as well as in Western Sahara since a ceasefire ended the armed conflict between the Polisario Front and Morocco in 1991, neither party has brought to justice or otherwise held accountable the perpetrators of atrocities committed during that earlier period.

Human Rights Watch takes no position on the issue of independence for Western Sahara or on Morocco's proposal for regional autonomy under Moroccan sovereignty. However, all persons, whether living in contested territory under de facto Moroccan control or in refugee camps administered by the Polisario Front, are entitled to respect for all of their fundamental human rights. Abuses committed by Morocco can in no way justify or mitigate abuses committed by the Polisario, or vice versa.

Western Sahara

Morocco has made steady gains in its human rights performance in the past fifteen years. It has allowed greater freedom of expression and independent human rights monitoring, and has established a truth commission that investigated and acknowledged past abuses and compensated victims. It has ended some of the most grievous practices, such as long-term "disappearances," that were commonplace in the past.

However, the limits to Morocco's progress on human rights are apparent in the way authorities suppress opposition to the officially held position that Western Sahara is part of Morocco. The government bans peaceful demonstrations and refuses legal recognition to human rights organizations; the security forces arbitrarily arrest demonstrators and suspected Sahrawi activists, beat them and subject them to torture, and force them to sign incriminating police statements, all with virtual impunity; and the courts convict and imprison them after unfair trials.

Moroccan authorities consider the "Southern Provinces" (their term for the contested territory) part of Morocco, subject to the same laws and administrative structures as the rest of the country. Therefore, their treatment of dissent in this region, despite its particular characteristics, should not be considered an aberration but rather an example of the extent to which Moroccan authorities continue to violate human rights in order to suppress political dissent on issues they deem critical.

Because Human Rights Watch did not conduct comparative research in various regions of Morocco, it cannot say whether Morocco's human rights practices in Western Sahara are better or worse than its practices elsewhere. There is, of course, the particular problem of Moroccan laws that forbid attacks on Morocco's "territorial integrity" – interpreted to mean advocacy of independence for Western Sahara. But beyond this issue, further research would be needed to judge whether dissidents or protesters who advocate on behalf of other politically sensitive causes in, say, Tangiers or Fez, enjoy more freedom to associate or assemble, are more likely to have a fair trial, or are less likely to face physical violence at the hands of the police, than Sahrawi activists in El-Ayoun or Smara.

In measuring Morocco's compliance with its international human rights obligations in Western Sahara, Human Rights Watch is not implying any position on the future status of the territory. Whatever Western Sahara's current or future status, its residents are endowed with human rights that those who exercise de facto authority are legally bound to respect. Any political arrangement that denies people the right to speak, assemble and associate peacefully on a political issue central to their lives constitutes an affront to human rights.

Morocco's Autonomy Plan

In April 2007 Morocco presented to the UN a proposal for an autonomy plan for Western Sahara, a plan that, Morocco claims will satisfy Sahrawi aspirations for self-determination under continued Moroccan sovereignty. Under the proposal, Morocco will devolve a measure of power from the central authority to locally elected bodies and officials. Morocco has presented its autonomy plan as a basis for negotiations with the Polisario Front.

However, Moroccan authorities have not to our knowledge indicated that their autonomy plan envisions a change in the environment governing freedom of expression on the Western Sahara issue. Persons may freely debate the modalities of implementing the autonomy plan. But to propose any path, including a referendum, that might lead to independence, will continue to be viewed as an attack on Morocco's "territorial integrity" (see letter from Moroccan government in Appendix 2 of this report), incurring the risk of criminal penalties.

Laws Penalizing Attacks on Morocco's "Territorial Integrity"

One of the causes of the human rights violations described in this report is Moroccan legislation prohibiting attacks on the kingdom's "territorial integrity." In practice, this phrase is applied to repress challenges to the official position that Western Sahara is part of Morocco. This is one of the three explicit red lines in Moroccan law limiting free expression, alongside "undermining" the Islamic religion and the monarchical regime.

Morocco's 1996 constitution states in Article 19, "The King shall be the guarantor of the … territorial integrity of the Kingdom within all its rightful boundaries." The Law on Associations, while liberal in some respects, permits banning of associations that, in the interpretation of the courts, seek to undermine Morocco's "territorial integrity." The 2002 Press Law, more progressive than its predecessor, maintains prison terms and heavy fines, and the suspension or banning of a publication, as punishment for speech that undermines "territorial integrity."

The conclusion is inescapable: prohibitions on speech and activities deemed to undermine "territorial integrity" violate Morocco's obligations as a signatory to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) to respect freedom of speech, association, and assembly. Moroccan authorities claim to restrict only speech and activities whose suppression the ICCPR allows because they threaten security and the public order (see letter from Moroccan government in Appendix 2 of this report). In practice, they use the broad and vague concept of "undermining territorial integrity" to repress all kinds of peaceful political activity and speech when it opposes the official line on the Western Sahara issue.

The Need to Respect Rights in Practice, Guarantee Fair Trials, and End Impunity

Even if Morocco were to amend, eliminate, or interpret more narrowly the laws on "undermining territorial integrity," the human rights situation in Western Sahara will not change until Moroccan authorities respect the rights of those Sahrawis who wish to speak and mobilize peacefully in favor of self-determination. They must show the political will to hold the security forces accountable for the arbitrary arrest and harassment of Sahrawi activists, for using excessive force when suppressing public protests, and for acts of torture practiced against persons in custody. They must put an end to politically motivated convictions by ensuring that the courts respect all guarantees of a fair trial and reach verdicts on the basis of weighing all pertinent evidence impartially.

In El-Ayoun, Western Sahara's largest city, many Sahrawi victims of police violence during 2005, 2006, and 2007 named the same handful of police officers as having participated directly in beating or otherwise abusing them. The three they named most often are Brigadier Ichi abou el-Hassan, patrolman Moustapha Kamouri, and senior officer Aziz Annouche, known by his nickname, "et-Touheimeh." Moroccan authorities are aware that these individual officers have been the subject of numerous civilian complaints submitted to the prosecutor's office at the El-Ayoun Court of Appeals (see Appendix 2). In the cases that Human Rights Watch brought to their attention, the authorities dismissed the complaints as unfounded.

Brigadier abou el-Hassan and officer Kamouri have been transferred from El-Ayoun since the period covered by this report; officer Annouche reportedly remains on the job in that city. Human Rights Watch has no information to suggest that any of them has been held accountable for abuses committed against residents of El-Ayoun.

Harassment of Human Rights Activists

This report documents many forms of persecution and harassment by Moroccan authorities of Sahrawi human rights activists.The authorities seek to discredit these activists, accusing many of them of using human rights as a cover to further the Polisario's "separatist" agenda, sometimes through violence. While denying any links to violence, these activists openly embrace advocacy of independence as part of their human rights work since, for them, denial of self-determination is the human rights violation at the heart of the Sahrawi experience. This puts them on a collision course with Moroccan law. While Human Rights Watch takes no position on Sahrawi independence, we defend the right of others, whether or not they call themselves human rights defenders, to advocate peacefully for independence or other resolutions to the conflict.

Authorities justify repressive measures not only to prevent attacks on Morocco's "territorial integrity" but sometimes also in order to avert violence. At some pro-independence demonstrations and in separate incidents, persons have thrown rocks and, on occasion, Molotov cocktails. These dangerous and illegal actions have caused injuries to both law enforcement officers and civilians and damaged property, as cases presented in this report show. It is the right and responsibility of Moroccan authorities to prevent and punish such acts. However, the Moroccan authorities ban virtually all gatherings – no matter the subject – when they suspect the organizers of having pro-independence sentiments, and they routinely break up "unauthorized" public gatherings even when such gatherings are completely peaceful.

Serious Rights Violations Continue Despite Improvements over Time

This report focuses on the human rights situation from 2006 to the present. This picture, however bleak, represents an easing of repression since the 1970s and 1980s, when Morocco and the Polisario were at war. Moroccan authorities abducted and "disappeared" hundreds of Sahrawis and sentenced hundreds of others to long prison terms in unfair trials. All areas under Moroccan rule, including Western Sahara, have experienced some progress on human rights since the mid-1990s.

Despite the persistent enforcement of laws repressing advocacy of Sahrawi independence, Morocco has gradually and unevenly opened the door to wider debate on this issue. It has for example granted legal recognition to one small Moroccan political party, the Democratic Way (en-Nahj ed-Dimuqrati) whose platform includes allowing the Sahrawi people to vote on the option of independence. Sahrawi activists today denounce Moroccan rule of the contested region, and form associations, albeit unrecognized ones, to expose Moroccan human rights abuses and advocate their pro-independence views. These activists brief and escort visitors to Western Sahara, travel abroad and promote their views in international media and in some independent Moroccan dailies such as al-Masa and Al-JaridaAl-Oula and in weeklies such as TelQuel and Le Journal, even as Moroccan state and pro-government media continue a black-out on such expression.

In contrast to twenty years ago, Sahrawi activists conduct such activities and return home most nights without being disturbed. However, sooner or later most of them encounter various forms of harassment that can include travel restrictions, arbitrary arrest, beatings, or trial and imprisonment on trumped-up charges. In recent years, courts have generally imposed on Sahrawi activists sentences of three years or less, sentences generally much shorter than those imposed during the earlier period. The result is that, at any given moment, most vocal pro-independence Sahrawi activists are at liberty but a few are behind bars for having peacefully pursued their objectives.

While this progress deserves mention, the relevant measure of Morocco's record is not with its own record in past decades or with the record of the Polisario Front (to which this report devotes a separate section). It is with the body of international human rights law that the country has ratified and pledged to uphold. It is by this measure that Moroccan authorities themselves ask to be judged. By this measure, Morocco's treatment of Sahrawis who oppose continued Moroccan rule over Western Sahara falls far short.

Refugee Camps near Tindouf, Algeria

The Tindouf refugee camps, located in a harsh desert region of Algeria, have a population of approximately 125,000. They were established over thirty years ago by refugees who fled Moroccan forces as they advanced through Western Sahara. Most residents still live in tents or in modest huts without running water and remain heavily dependent on international humanitarian aid.

In 1976 the Polisario Front proclaimed the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR). With Algeria's cooperation, it administers the refugee camps around Tindouf as well as a sparsely populated sliver of Western Sahara located south and east of the portion of Western Sahara that is under Morocco's de facto control.

A disquieting trait of the human rights situation in the Tindouf camps is the isolation of the population and the lack of regular, on-the-ground human rights monitoring. Despite the Polisario's professions of openness to monitoring; the apparent easing of repression in recent years; and the presence of many foreigners working for development and humanitarian organizations, the rights of the refugees remain vulnerable due to the camps' remoteness and the legal limbo in which the camps exist. The government of the host country, Algeria – which is accountable under international law for protecting the rights of all persons within its territory – has ceded de facto administration of the camps to a liberation movement that is not formally accountable in the international system for its human rights practices.

The Polisario has now governed the camps for more than a generation. Camp residents are subject to the SADR constitution and laws. The Polisario implements policies and takes decisions that affect the human rights of camp residents on a daily basis. It operates courts, prisons, and an internal police force, controls the borders of the camps, and is the only authority with which camp residents have regular contact. This is a situation that may continue for years to come. For this reason, although Algeria remains ultimately responsible, the Polisario needs to be accountable for how it treats the people under its administration.

Algeria's has effectively abdicated responsibility for human rights violations committed by the Polisario on Algerian territory. This is impermissible: the international community must hold the government of Algeria, along with the Polisario, accountable for any Polisario violations committed in Algeria.

Freedom of Speech

Today, political detentions are rare or nonexistent in the refugee camps. Sahrawis can and do criticize the Polisario Front leadership over aspects of its management of day-to-day affairs in the camps and of the "national struggle."

However, the Polisario Front monopolizes political speech and marginalizes those who directly call into question its continued leadership or oppose it on fundamental issues. The camps have no dissidents, demonstrations, media or organizations of any real significance that openly challenge the legitimacy of the Polisario Front as the embodiment of the national cause, or that lobby in favor of accepting Morocco's proposal for Saharan autonomy under Moroccan sovereignty. A small independent newspaper and a dissident faction of the Polisario exist but have little discernible impact on public life. The one nongovernmental human rights organization operating in the camps, the Association for the Families of Saharawi Prisoners and the Disappeared (AFAPREDESA), does not monitor violations inside the camps but rather, advocates only for Sahrawi victims of abuses committed by Morocco.

The absence of significant political opposition is due primarily to the dominant role that the Polisario plays in allocating resources and jobs in the impoverished camps, whose population is organized into Polisario-linked mass organizations (e.g., National Union of Sahrawi Women, the Youth Union, and the General Workers Union). Those who oppose the Polisario on fundamental issues find it difficult to operate, even without any formal prohibition or direct repression of their activity, and often simply leave. As one educated former camp resident who supports Morocco's autonomy plan and who left the camps, put it, "People who want to oppose the Polisario from inside the camps can't really get anywhere with it, so they just get up and leave the camps."

Freedom of Movement

The Polisario, and many camp residents, portray as "sell-outs" or worse those who quit the camps to live in the Moroccan-controlled Western Sahara. However, Human Rights Watch found little or no evidence of formal or actual restrictions on refugees leaving the camps.

Those who have left the camps for Western Sahara, however, uniformly said that they kept their ultimate destination secret, fearing that the Polisario might prevent them from traveling if it became known. This fear causes many to leave without belongings and relatives they might otherwise take with them, resulting in unnecessary stress and hardship. Still, almost all who left used the main road across the Algerian-Mauritanian border, indicating a level of confidence that authorities would not turn them back. Sahrawis wishing to quit the camps find the means to do so, but a culture of "Don't ask, don't tell" surrounds the process.

Allegations of Slavery

The Polisario is on record as firmly opposing slavery in all of its manifestations; nevertheless, it must do more to eradicate residual slavery practices that continue to affect some black residents of the Tindouf camps.[1]

Blacks, who constitute a minority within a mostly Moorish population, told us that the issue of slavery in the camps today concerns one practice in particular: the refusal by some local personal-status judges (qadi's) to perform the act of marriage for black women informally designated as "slaves" unless their "owners" give their consent. A "master" is thus able to block a woman's choice of a husband.

This practice resembles the better-documented historical practices in Mali and that persist in Mauritania, a country whose population is linked culturally and ethnically to the Sahrawis. In Western Sahara, Sahrawis told us that residual slavery practices persist there as well.

Polisario officials concede that while SADR laws outlaw slavery, aspects of historical slavery practices persist in Sahrawi society and may have been reinforced by Polisario-employed officials, as described above. They have documented their efforts to punish such officials, and appear to oppose these practices in good faith. Blacks we spoke to agreed that the Polisario opposes slavery but stressed that work remains to be done if slavery is to be eradicated in all its manifestations.

[1]The people Human Rights Watch interviewed in the camps on this issue identified themselves by using the Arabic terms for "black" [aswad].