HUMAN RIGHTS WATCH

Letter to King Mohammed VI on the Trial of Sahrawi Human Rights Defenders in the Western Sahara

December 9, 2005  
 
His Majesty King Mohammed VI  
Palais Royal  
Rabat, Kingdom of Morocco  
 
 
Your Majesty,  
 
We address this open letter to you respectfully in your capacity as Protector of the rights and liberties of citizens, social groups and organizations; as President of the Supreme Council of the Magistracy; and as the authority in whose name sentences are passed and executed, as per Articles 19, 86, and 83 respectively of the Constitution of Morocco.  
 
We understand that on or shortly after December 10, International Human Rights Day, you may preside over a ceremony honoring Morocco’s Equity and Reconciliation Commission (ERC) for its just-completed work documenting grave abuses committed in the past, compensating victims, and recommending measures to prevent human rights abuses in the future.  
 
Moroccan authorities have often made the claim that the ERC represents a major step toward consolidating respect for human rights. The many achievements of the ERC deserve recognition, as does the progress that Morocco has made in recent years in many areas of human rights, such as tolerance of dissenting views. However, this progress has been uneven throughout the Kingdom. The Western Sahara remains far behind other regions in terms of respect for basic rights, as can be seen in the current detention and trial of human rights activists in Laayoune on dubious charges, and in the harassment of Sahrawi human rights activists more generally – whether for their denunciation of abuses or for their peaceful advocacy of independence for the Western Sahara.  
 
On December 13, the Court of Appeal in Laayoune is scheduled to resume hearings in the inter-related trials of fourteen persons, including seven human rights activists: Aminatou Haidar, H’mad Hammad, Ali Salem Tamek, El-Houcine Lidri, Brahim Noumria, Larbi Messaoud, and Mohamed El-Moutaouakil. These seven are facing serious criminal charges, including incitement of and participation in the sometimes violent protests that have taken place in Laayoune since last May. Taken into detention in June-July and on trial since November 22, all face long prison terms if convicted. (For charges such as these, the Court of Appeal is the court of first instance under Moroccan law.)  
 
Having visited Laayoune earlier this month and examined the materials contained in the case files for these seven defendants, Human Rights Watch is concerned that little if any of the evidence implicating them in inciting, directing or participating in the violence appears to be credible.  
 
It appears rather that these individuals are being targeted for prosecution because of their activism on behalf of Sahrawi victims of human rights abuses, and their outspoken but peaceful advocacy of independence for the Sahrawi people and opposition to continued Moroccan sovereignty over the Western Sahara. The seven, all in their thirties and forties, are being tried alongside another seven, much younger, defendants also charged with riot-related offenses. We have similar concerns about an eighth activist, Brahim Dahane, who was arrested on October 30 and is expected to be tried separately on similar charges.  
 
We are aware that, alongside peaceful demonstrations Sahrawis have held in Laayoune since May, there have been incidents where protesters have thrown rocks and Molotov cocktails at the security forces. We recognize that public authorities have the obligation to restore order, and the right to use proportionate force in doing so if strictly necessary. The authorities also have the right to prosecute those suspected of committing acts of violence.  
 
However, there is ample evidence indicating that security forces used excessive and arbitrary force both when dispersing non-violent demonstrations as well as when responding to violent acts by protesters. Before their arrest, the human rights activists on trial were actively collecting and disseminating testimonies and other evidence about these abuses, and Human Rights Watch has gathered such evidence as well.  
 
About the Defendants  
Police in Laayoune arrested Haidar on June 17 and Hammad on July 11. They seized Tamek on July 18, upon his return to Laayoune from Europe. Messaoud, Lidri and Noumria were all taken into custody in Laayoune on July 20. Police detained El-Moutaouakil the same day at his home in Casablanca.  
 
Tamek, El-Moutaouakil and Messaoud have all been convicted and imprisoned in the past for their peaceful political activities in favor of Sahrawi independence, activities that are punishable under laws that broadly criminalize “attacks” on Morocco’s “national integrity.” Haidar and Noumria (and also Dahane) were all arrested by Moroccan authorities in 1987 and held in secret detention until the late King Hassan II freed them in 1991.  
 
Defendants El-Moutaouakil, Lidri, Messaoud, and Noumria were members of the Forum for Truth and Justice–Sahara Section, an independent organization advocating the rights of victims of past abuses. (A court dissolved the group in 2003, three years after its founding – see below.) El-Moutaouakil is currently a member of the executive bureau of the Moroccan Forum for Truth and Justice, a nationwide organization that enjoys legal recognition. Dahane is president of the Sahrawi Association of Victims of Grave Human Rights Violations Committed by the Moroccan Authorities (hereinafter the Sahrawi Association of Victims), a group that authorities have refused to recognize. Although less identified with particular organizations, Haidar, Tamek, and Hamed have all campaigned on behalf of Sahrawi political prisoners and “disappeared” persons.  
 
The seven currently on trial face various riot-related charges under the penal code. These include formation of a criminal enterprise, willfully destroying the property of others, destruction of public property, violence against public officials while in the performance of their duties, inciting others to commit violence, and inciting and participating in unauthorized demonstrations. Some have additionally been charged with membership in an unauthorized association, presumably a reference to their activities in human rights groups that have not received legal permission from the authorities (see below). Similar charges are apparently being formulated against Brahim Dahane, although the criminal investigation into his case is not yet complete.  
 
Fair trial concerns  
Admissibility of statements attributed to defendants. The evidence made available to the defense lawyers suggests that the prosecution’s case against the seven activists currently on trial rests on written statements attributed by the police to the various defendants in which they implicate themselves and one another in planning, provoking and committing violent actions. However, the seven all refused to sign the written police statements. All of them denied before the investigating judge that these written police statements reflected what they had told their interrogators. They declared their innocence of all charges related to the violent disturbances.  
 
We believe that in the interests of a fair trial, the trial judge should carefully examine these police statements and rule them inadmissible as evidence if he determines that they do not represent the actual words of the defendants. We also believe that the trial judge has an obligation to scrutinize the veracity of statements made by other persons implicating the human rights defenders in crimes. If the defense asks the court to produce these witnesses, the judge should honor the request and permit them to be cross-examined.  
 
Treatment in Detention. Other developments in this case give further cause for concern about the fairness of the proceedings. Two of the defendants, El-Houcine Lidri and Brahim Noumria, allege that police took them to a secret place of detention after their arrest on July 20 and tortured them before delivering them to the Laayoune jail on July 22. According to Amnesty International, both men stated that the police beat them and suspended them in contorted positions with their hands tied and eyes blindfolded. Lidri complained that police pulled out some of his beard and head hair, poured a chemical substance on him, and spat on him. Noumria also alleged that his captors sprayed a chemical substance on him and spat on him, and that they burned him with a naked flame. He says that his captors bound his hands in cloth before beating his hands so that the beating would leave fewer traces.  
 
Both men have filed complaints with the office of the Royal Prosecutor in Laayoune, and in an August 3 statement the office said that it had opened an investigation into the allegations of abuse. The statement added that medical examinations of both men had turned up no signs of physical violence. To our knowledge, no additional findings have been announced from that investigation. We remain concerned that the allegations of torture against the police by two of the defendants in the case have yet to receive the attention they deserve from authorities.  
 
Trial Proceedings. Concerns for the openness of the trial proceedings arise from events that occurred at the trial on November 30. It appears that the court delayed the proceedings in order to avoid holding them on a day when a large number of international human rights observers and defense lawyers from elsewhere in Morocco were in attendance. The customary practice in Laayoune, when parties or observers to a trial have traveled a long distance in order to attend, is to schedule the proceedings for early in the day, a practice that allows those parties to depart the city the same evening. However, on November 30 the judge did not start this trial until the end of the day, apparently because the prosecutor had not ordered the transfer of the defendants to the courthouse from the prison, a short distance away. By 2 p.m., when the judge had finished hearing all other cases scheduled for the day, the defendants in this case were still not present. When they were finally brought into the courtroom, at around 5 p.m., their lawyers announced their withdrawal from the case in protest, provoking an adjournment of the case until December 6.  
 
The lawyers now say they will refrain from representing their clients until the prosecutor formally presents his excuses for failing to bring them to court in a timely fashion on November 30. Their position – and the refusal of the defendants to be represented instead by court-appointed attorneys – forced the case to be postponed again on December 6, this time until December 13.  
 
Harassment of Human Rights Activists in the Western Sahara  
These arrests and prosecutions fit into a larger picture of the harassment and persecution of Sahrawis who attempt to monitor and denounce human rights abuses by the Moroccan authorities. On June 18, 2003, the Laayoune Court of First Instance dissolved the Sahara section of the Forum for Truth and Justice. The court ruled that the organization had engaged in “illegal” and “separatist” activities that were “incompatible” with its statutes. The members filed an appeal, but, two-and-a-half years later, no decision has been rendered and the organization’s office in Laayoune remains sealed by court order.  
 
Authorities have also thwarted efforts by a new human rights organization to obtain legal recognition. Under Moroccan law, members of a new association need only notify authorities of its founding. In an effort to frustrate the intent of this law, Interior Ministry officials have refused to receive the founding papers of the Sahrawi Association of Victims of Grave Human Rights Violations Committed by the Moroccan Authorities (hereinafter the Sahrawi Association of Victims), or to issue its members a receipt proving that they have submitted the required notice. Other associations active elsewhere in Morocco have faced the same tactic depriving them of legal recognition. Non-recognition of the Sahrawi Association of Victims appears to have resulted in defendants in the case currently being charged with membership in an “unrecognized association” (although the name of the unrecognized association in question is not specified in the charge sheets, and the defendants are to our knowledge not formally involved in the Sahrawi Association of Victims), in addition to the charges relating to the disturbances.  
 
The trial of these activists comes at a time when Sahrawi human rights advocates face constant risk of harassment by the local authorities. To cite three examples from 2005:  
 
A group of Sahrawis are still deprived of their passports nearly three years after Moroccan authorities confiscated them as they were preparing to fly to Geneva to participate in United Nations human rights activities. The thirteen-member delegation prevented from leaving on March 27, 2003 was composed of human rights activists, including Brahim Noumria and Brahim Dahane, and relatives of “disappeared” Sahrawis. To our knowledge, the delegates still denied their passports include Noumria, Dahane, Sidi Mohamed Daddach, Brahim El-Garhi, Moumen Mohamed Mahmoud, Mohamed Salem Zaidan, El-Bachir Lekhfaouni, Mbarka Alina Qairaouan, Maimouna Taglabout, and Hamma El-Qotb. (We cannot help noting that representatives of organizations focused on Polisario human rights violations were free to travel to Geneva to participate in those U.N. human rights events.)  
 
We are also concerned that at some point during November 2005 Moroccan authorities apparently began blocking access from within Morocco to websites espousing the cause of independence for the Western Sahara. Some of these websites, such as www.arso.org and www.afrapredesa.org, contain extensive information on human rights abuses allegedly committed by Moroccan authorities against Sahrawis. We regret that Morocco appears to be engaging in this form of censorship, especially since it has refrained until now, with rare exceptions, from blocking websites for political reasons.  
 
Human Rights Watch’s Recommendations  
In closing, we ask Moroccan authorities to guarantee a fair trial for the defendants currently before the court in Laayoune, to end all forms of harassment and reprisal against persons for collecting and disseminating information about human rights violations, and to end censorship of websites dealing with the Western Sahara because of their human rights or political content. We also urge authorities to complete and make public the results of the investigation they state has been opened into the complaints of torture filed by detainees Brahim Noumria and El-Houcine Lidri.  
 
We thank you for your consideration and welcome your response.  
 
Sincerely yours,  
 
 
 
Sarah Leah Whitson  
Executive Director, Middle East and North Africa Division  
 
 
Cc: Ambassador Aziz Mekouar