December 19, 2008

Human Rights in the Tindouf Camps

Past Polisario Abuses and Accountability

This report focuses on present-day human rights conditions. From the start of their conflict in 1975 until the 1991 ceasefire, both Moroccan and Polisario forces committed abuses that are generally far graver than those that either party has committed during recent times. Both parties tortured suspected opponents and held them in detention for years at a time without charge or trial. Detainees on both sides died under torture or during years in secret captivity.[213]

International human rights organizations have documented Morocco's practices of long-term forced disappearance in Morocco and Moroccan-controlled Western Sahara during the 1970s, 1980s, and early 1990s.[214] An Equity and Reconciliation Commission, established by King Mohamed VI in 2004, recognized the state's responsibility for many of these practices in its final report. However, the Commission's mandate explicitly excluded naming or bringing to justice perpetrators of past abuses, and since it completed its work, Morocco's judiciary has not brought charges against a single perpetrator from this period.[215]

International organizations have documented far less extensively the abuses perpetrated by the Polisario during this period in the refugee camps that it administered. In a 1996 report, Amnesty International noted the allegations of past abuses committed by the Polisario and urged investigations.[216] Amnesty International said that while the Polisario authorities had acknowledged the occurrence of human rights abuses in the past, they had "failed to provide any specific information about detentions, torture and ill-treatment and deaths in custody" or to remove the individuals responsible for these abuses from positions of authority.[217]

Organizations based in Western Sahara and led by Sahrawis who quit the camps have collected evidence, notably the direct testimonies of Polisario victims, in order to document and publicize those abuses. These apparently well-funded organizations publish reports in various languages[218] and tour international capitals to denounce Polisario abuses. Morocco's official and quasi-official media highlight their activities while ignoring the work of organizations that expose abuses committed by Moroccan authorities.

Regardless of the sources of their support, these organizations have collected compelling first-hand testimony of the Polisario's practices during the 1970s and 1980s of torture, long-term imprisonment without trial or charge, and forced labor. Human Rights Watch has heard similar testimony of Polisario abuse practiced during those decades from victims and eyewitnesses whom it contacted through channels independent of these organizations.

SADR Justice Minister Hamada Selma told Human Rights Watch that before the 1991 ceasefire, Morocco and the Polisario were fighting an all-out war that included foreign agents infiltrating the camps and carrying out assassinations. He acknowledged that the Polisario Front committed abuses in this context. According to him, the Front's seventh congress in Sa'ifa in 1989 adopted resolutions directing the Polisario to acknowledge the abuses, compensate victims, release detainees, dismiss the Polisario chief of security, close prisons, enact new laws to facilitate the monitoring of prisons, hold abusers accountable, and create a human rights monitoring committee directed by the prime minister. The Polisario's executive took steps to implement these resolutions, Selma said.[219]

Human Rights Watch is not in a position to verify the extent to which the above-listed measures were carried out in the post-1989 period. From the absence of publicly available documentation of investigations conducted by the Polisario Front and from recent interviews with victims of past abuses, it is clear that the leadership has done little over the last twenty years to investigate thoroughly and disclose in detail the severe abuses that their agents perpetrated, and to identify the perpetrators and hold them accountable.


One abuse that has been documented is the Polisario's holding of Moroccan prisoners of war in harsh conditions for as long as 14 years after the cessation of hostilities.[220] Human Rights Watch visited two POW camps in Tindouf in 1995 and, while it did not conduct a thorough inquiry, found that conditions there fell short of international standards. Prisoners were forced to do difficult physical work in harsh desert conditions without pay for long hours.[221] They complained that they received inadequate medication and food and had to resort to theft to survive.[222]

In 2003, the humanitarian organization France Libertés issued a more detailed report based on interviews with POWs still in custody. According to the report, since the Polisario began capturing Moroccan soldiers after the start of armed conflict in 1975, Polisario members summarily executed POWs, tortured them, forced them to give blood without their consent, detained them in inhumane conditions, and denied them adequate medical care.[223] The Polisario issued a lengthy response to the France Libertés report, denying mistreatment of the POWs.[224]

In addition to subjecting the POWs to harsh treatment, the Polisario held hundreds of them for years after the cessation of active hostilities with Morocco in 1991, a practice that violates international humanitarian law, in the view of the UN Security Council.[225] Article 118 of the Third Geneva Convention states, "Prisoners of war shall be released and repatriated without delay after the cessation of active hostilities."

The Polisario refused to release the POWs after the ceasefire took effect in 1991, arguing that the UN settlement plan linked the release of POWs to completion of the registration of eligible voters for the referendum on self-determination. Morocco's alleged failure to meet its obligations under the plan meant that active hostilities had not ceased, the Polisario claimed.[226]

However, Article 6 of the Third Geneva Convention seemingly excludes such an interpretation of "the cessation of active hostilities." It states that while High Contracting Parties may conclude agreements with one another, these may not "adversely affect the situation of prisoners in war, as defined by the present Convention, nor restrict the rights which it confers upon them." Although not a High Contracting Party, the Polisario Front has declared its formal adherence to the Geneva Conventions.

It was not until 2005 that the Polisario released the last of its POWs, that is, fourteen years after the cessation of active hostilities.[227]

To Human Rights Watch's knowledge, neither Algeria nor the Polisario or SADR authorities have investigated or prosecuted any of those allegedly responsible for mistreating Moroccan POWs or for detaining them for so long after the cease-fire.

The Question of Political Detention in the Camps Today

Political detentions were commonplace in the Polisario-run camps during the 1970s and 1980s. Human Rights Watch spoke to several persons who had been detained for years without trial during that period, because of political differences with the Polisario leadership or because of suspicions they had collaborated with Morocco.

Polisario officials told Human Rights Watch that it does not prosecute or punish anyone for his peaceful political beliefs and that no one is serving time for politically motivated offenses. Polisario directorate member M'hamed Khadad said:

The Polisario Front holds no political prisoners. The Polisario is not a political party; it is a front of all Sahrawis who are fighting for the independence of Western Sahara. We favor independence but accept that Sahrawis can in a referendum freely decide their future by choosing between this option, autonomy or integration [full integration in Morocco]. No one was imprisoned here for supporting Morocco or the autonomy plan. But, as far as I know, no one here actually supports Morocco or has raised its flag.[228]

Numerous Sahrawis told us that Algerian security forces are not visible inside the camps and that Algeria cedes day-to-day running of the camps to the Polisario.

No one we interviewed could cite a clear-cut case where the Polisario had imprisoned a person during the last few years because of his political views or activities. "There are no political prisoners," said Yeslim Ould Ismail Ould el-Melkhi, a critic of the Polisario who left the camps. "But 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." Melkhi, disenchanted with the Polisario's human rights record and its close alliance with Algeria, and supportive of the Moroccan autonomy proposal, left the camps in April 2007 and now lives in the Moroccan-controlled Western Sahara.[229]

What open criticism there is of the Polisario leadership, however harsh, seems to take place within a "national consensus," one that sees the Polisario as representing the Sahrawi people in its aspirations for independence. No one could cite examples of persons inside the camps who openly questioned the legitimacy of the Polisario as the Sahrawi liberation movement, or who defended Morocco's autonomy plan for Western Sahara as the best way forward.

Human Rights Watch learned of only one possible case of political detention in the period under study, that is, since 2006. The questionable case involves the arrests carried out in the aftermath of a demonstration that turned violent. In that incident, the detention by the Polisario police of Habbadi Ould Hmimed on May 30, 2006 for an alleged traffic violation sparked street protests in the 27 February Camp by his kinsfolk from the Ayaichi faction of the Reguibat tribe. The security forces in the camps repressed the demonstration forcefully; Polisario courts convicted and imprisoned 14 participants.

The Moroccan press at the time referred to the confrontation as a "massacre happening in secret,"[230] one that targeted a group because it had dared to express pro-Moroccan sentiments and even defiantly raised the Moroccan flag.[231]

Human Rights Watch's research concluded that this 2006 clash was an isolated incident, that there were no fatalities or grave injuries, and that it was not representative of a pattern of police brutality in suppressing demonstrations.

In November 2007, Human Rights Watch interviewed three men imprisoned for their role in the disturbances, a local employee of an international organization who was familiar with the incident, and Justice Minister Hamada Selma. We concluded that the protesters shared a grievance that the Polisario leadership discriminated against and marginalized the Ayaichi faction, a sentiment ignited by the arrest of a clansman. Any political demands uniting them were secondary.

Mohamed Lamine Salameh Mohamed, a 34-year-old a resident of El-Ayoun Camp who served prison time for his part in the demonstrations, said the police insulted the demonstrators and called them collaborators with Morocco. In fact, Mohamed said, the demonstrators support the Sahrawi national cause and criticize only what they consider to be Polisario corruption, tribal favoritism and exclusionism.[232]

The demonstration was not peaceful. By all accounts, protesters stoned the police and damaged a local police post. Justice Minister Selma said that several of them carried sticks and iron bars.[233] The police, for their part, beat protesters and arrested persons arbitrarily. Mohamed Lamine Salameh Mohamed told us, "The police beat me on the head, and then sat on me while I was not resisting. They arrested me, put me in a Toyota wagon, and continued to beat me." Mohamed Ahmed Ibrahim, 49, of Smara camp, also said that the police beat him during the demonstration.[234]

The police arrested Salameh and Ibrahim and approximately 12 others that day. Over the next few days, they picked up about five other men for their alleged role in the protest. The authorities eventually charged 14 of them.

Mohamed Lamine Salameh Mohamed and Mohamed Ahmed Ibrahim both said that while they were in custody, the police insulted and threatened them, but did not physically torture them. Mohamed Lamine Salameh Mohamed said the police placed some of their co-detainees in tiny box-like cells for 15 minutes, as punishment for refusing to provide the names of participants, but otherwise did not physically mistreat them.[235] Hathiya Salama M'hamed, of 27 February camp, said the police confined two men to a cell that was only one meter wide by two meters long.[236]

The trial took place before a SADR civilian court on June 14, 2006. The court convicted all of the defendants, sentencing two to one year in prison, six to six months in prison, three to six months in prison suspended, and two who were tried in absentia to two years in prison. Those sentenced to prison were released before the end of their terms, after women from the Ayaichi clan staged an open-ended sit-in before the Presidency in Rabouni Camp to demand their release.

Justice Minister Selma stated that that the court had convicted the defendants under articles 54, 86, and 87 of the SADR Penal Code, including for the commission of acts of violence.[237] Mohamed Lamine Salameh Mohamed flatly denies having committed any violent act and claimed that the conviction of his co-defendants and himself was not for violence but rather for the offense of taking part in a demonstration deemed "likely to disturb the public order."

Article 54 provides a prison term of one to five years for this offense. According to Justice Minister Selma, the SADR judiciary interprets the concept of disturbances to the public order to mean "infringements of civil liberties, disruptions caused by obstructing of major roads used by legitimate institutions to provide their services, and threats to the physical safety or public health of all persons."[238]

However, this delineation of the types of assemblies likely to "disturb the public order" is not found in the law itself, the language of which is so broad that it can be used to criminalize peaceful political protests. To protect the right of assembly, the SADR should amend its laws to limit the power of authorities to ban assemblies to a narrow set of cases, such as gatherings for the specific purpose of violence.

Justice Minister Selma acknowledged that five men had complained about mistreatment by police during the demonstration, but said that the investigating magistrate had declined to open an investigation because the men had not filed their complaints within the time limit provided by law. He nevertheless personally met with them, he said. Selma said this was the only complaint his office had received involving police violence since he became justice minister in 2003.[239]

Freedom of Movement

The right to freedom of movement is at the heart of questions about the human rights of the Sahrawis residing in the Tindouf refugee camps. Moroccan authorities and pro-Moroccan media and organizations often refer to camp residents as "séquestrés" (captives). The intimation is that the camps would experience a mass exodus if the Polisario allowed their "captives" to leave, discrediting the Front and reducing the international community's delivery of humanitarian aid to the camps.

For example, in his speech inaugurating the Royal Advisory Council for Sahara Affairs on March 25, 2006, King Mohammed VI urged the council "to propose initiatives for the return and integration of your fellow citizens held captive in the Tindouf camps, so that they may come back to their merciful, forgiving homeland."[240] On April 3, 2008, Moroccan government spokesman Khaled Naciri demanded a census of the population "held captive" in the Polisario-run camps.[241]

While the SADR Constitution does not contain any provisions guaranteeing freedom of movement, several Polisario officials told Human Rights Watch that Tindouf camp residents are free to leave the camps at any time. Justice Minister Hamada Selma commented:

An average of nearly 20,000 persons travel each year from the camps to other regions (children on school trips, training, medicine, special purposes, etc.). In addition, the family visit program between Sahrawi families across the Moroccan separation wall has included so far more than 5,000 people …. The Saharan Refugees are free; they came to the camps by their own free will, and they are free to leave if they so wish. There are no legal or administrative measures that would prevent their departure …. We defy anyone, individual or organization, including the UNHCR, to present the name of a person who is prohibited from traveling to the Sahara under Moroccan occupation.[242]

While Sahrawis may first need to obtain Algerian travel documents if they wish to travel to countries that require them, they do not need such documents to enter nearby Mauritania, where they are free to apply at a Moroccan consulate for entry into the Moroccan-administered areas.

To gauge the freedom of camp residents to leave the camps permanently, Human Rights Watch interviewed tens of Sahrawis, including many in the Tindouf camps; 15 Sahrawis who had left the camps since 2006 and had moved to Moroccan-administered areas; former camp residents now living in third countries; and locally based staff of NGOs and international institutions. We focused on collecting evidence pertaining to the period from 2006 to the present, and cannot speak knowledgeably about the enjoyment of this right during an earlier period.

To determine whether these Sahrawis felt completely free to leave the camps for good, we asked them questions such as whether they used the official border crossing or took a clandestine route; whether they told others of their plans or intended destination; whether they traveled with their entire family and all of their belongings; and whether they knew of any Polisario reprisals against relatives of persons who resettled in Moroccan-administered areas. We interviewed people about their own experience and about the experience of others.

Travel to Mauritania, Morocco, and Moroccan-Controlled Western Sahara

The Polisario does not prevent camp residents from leaving the camps on trips of limited duration or to settle elsewhere permanently. Sahrawis who seek to leave generally find a way to do so.

Nevertheless, former camp residents now living in Moroccan-controlled Western Sahara told us that when they left the camps they concealed their ultimate destination, fearing that the Polisario would block their departure if it became known. But no current or former camp residents provided us with specific, verifiable information about any camp resident whom the Polisario had prevented from resettling in the Moroccan-controlled area. Some speculated that there were types of high-level persons whose departure the Polisario might seek to prevent, but they could cite no example by name.

Thus, while at least some ex-camp residents feared that the Polisario would obstruct their departure if it became known that they intended to settle in Moroccan-controlled territory, those headed in that direction generally found a way to exit the camps with little difficulty. Of the 17 persons we interviewed about how they had left the camps for Morocco since 2006:

  • ten left Algerian territory in a vehicle via the main road between the camps and Mauritania, via the Hamra border checkpoint;
  • two possessed Algerian passports and departed on regularly scheduled flights;
  • two came on a UN-organized family visit flight and remained on the Moroccan-controlled side;
  • one approached the Berm, where Moroccan soldiers ushered her across; she had previously traveled from the camps to Mauritania, but the Moroccan consulate there had refused to grant her entry to Morocco because she had not brought the required documents;          
  • one took an off-road route across the border at night, after officials at Hamra checkpoint turned him back because his national (SADR) ID card had expired; and
  • one took an arduous desert detour around the checkpoint, fearing Polisario authorities at the checkpoint would not let him exit.

These same individuals for the most part said they kept their plans secret from others in the camps. They said they did so not only out of fear that the Polisario might prevent them from leaving, but also because the prevailing sentiment in the camps is that it is shameful to opt for life "under Moroccan occupation."

"They taught us to hate Morocco from when we were young, that [the Moroccans] would torture and mistreat you," said a former SADR civil servant who left the camps in late 2006 and settled in El-Ayoun. "But people in the camps have cell phones. When a friend who had left the camps for here [the Moroccan-controlled Western Sahara] called me to say, 'Come, you won't have problems, you'll be OK here,' I decided to come." The civil servant had no trouble leaving:

I left with my wife, child, and six other relatives, in a truck. The owner of the truck is an officer in the security forces. When we reached the border post, he talked to the guards, and there was no problem. We left most of our stuff in the camps, so there would be no suspicions. My parents and brothers are still in the camps; they have suffered no reprisals because we left. The authorities came to my father and asked where I went, and he answered, Mauritania, and that was it.[243]

Ghlaili Hanini, a seamstress who is about 50 years old, left the camps in May 2006 and now lives in El-Ayoun. At the Hamra checkpoint, "I told them I was going to visit my sister in Nouadhibou [Mauritania]," she recalled. "This is also what I told my neighbors before I left. People never say they are going to Morocco." Asked if anyone later punished her relatives in the camp for her departure, she replied that neither she nor any other family she knew in the camps had been punished for the departure of relatives to the Moroccan-controlled Western Sahara. She pointed out that her own daughter left the camps after she did, and was now also living in Western Sahara.[244]

Invariably, people who reached Western Sahara via Mauritania told us that in order to allay suspicions that their departure was definitive they left behind most of their belongings; some limited the number of family members traveling with them. When asked whether their own departure now meant that their relatives remaining in the camps would be prevented from leaving, they answered that they believed their relatives who wished to resettle in Western Sahara would still be able to do so.

Human Rights Watch asked ex-camp residents who had resettled in Western Sahara if they had contacted relatives in the camps since arriving. With one exception, all said they had had telephone contact. None said they had heard of any acts of reprisal taken by the Polisario against relatives of persons who moved from the camps to Moroccan-controlled territory.

Hamra checkpoint, the main Algerian-Mauritanian border point, is a daylong drive on rough roads from the main cluster of refugee camps in Tindouf. Polisario and Algerian guards staff the checkpoint, registering the IDs of drivers and passengers, Sahrawis told us. If the guards asked the reason for their travel, Sahrawis leaving for Moroccan-controlled areas lied, explaining, for example, that they were headed to Mauritania to visit relatives or conduct business. The guards then allowed them to pass.

Some Sahrawis camp residents said that they had to obtain an authorization from SADR headquarters in Rabouni camp to leave for Mauritania, but got it easily; others said they got the necessary approval on the spot at the border; still others said no permission was needed.

Yeslim Ould Ismail Ould el-Melkhi, a pharmacist born in 1968 who last left the Tindouf camps in April 2007, put it this way:

It is a pretty chaotic situation in the camps. Everybody is preoccupied with trying to provide for his basic needs. If you want to leave, you just make the necessary arrangements, and you head for the Hamra checkpoint. You show your ID, they write your name down, and they let you pass. They understand the problems that people face in the camps. You must not tell them you are going to Morocco, but otherwise they do not care if you leave.[245]

Abdallah Mala'ainine, who left the camps for the Moroccan-controlled area in 2006, also said that leaving was easy but counseled discretion: "You keep the fact that you might want to go to Morocco to yourself; otherwise you might be seen as inciting others. You just do it."[246]

The fact that nearly all of those who reached Morocco said that they crossed into Mauritania via an official crossing point, instead of attempting an off-road route or approaching the Berm and surrendering to Moroccan soldiers, indicates confidence in the relative ease of passage via this route. One who left through an unofficial route in July 2005, Hamdi Abidi el-Bachir, said the Polisario police at Hamra checkpoint turned him back upon discovering his SADR ID had expired. "So we drove back a ways," el-Bachir, a schoolteacher, recalled, "and waited for the middle of the night. Then we drove around the checkpoint. Lots of people do that.[247]

Another possible avenue for quitting the camps is the UN-administered program of family visits. That program involves flying Sahrawi families from the Moroccan-administered zone to the Tindouf refugee camps and vice versa, for visits lasting five days. According to statistics provided by the UNHCR, the program arranged visits to "the other side" for 6,638 Sahrawis between its launch in March 2004 and October 3, 2008. Roughly half of this total traveled from the Tindouf camps to the Moroccan-controlled territory; of these, "fewer than ten," as of May 2008, had chosen to remain rather than return, according to the UNHCR.[248]

Some Moroccan officials explained to Human Rights Watch that the reason so few camp residents remained in the Morocco-administered area after coming on a UNHCR family visit was interference by the Polisario to prevent entire families from applying together, thereby ensuring that participants would return to the camps.

However, our interviews with Sahrawis and UN officials turned up no evidence that, at the present time, the Polisario has been preventing, for political reasons, any Tindouf camp resident from participating in the UN family visits program. Nor did we find evidence that the Polisario was manipulating the lists to ensure that some members of participating families remained behind as a means of ensuring that their relatives returned from the Moroccan side at the end of their five-day visit.

We were unable to ascertain whether the Polisario imposed such obstacles in the past. The UNHCR's chief of operations in Western Sahara, Sergio Calle-Noreña, noted that when the UNHCR reopened the application process in the Tindouf camps from December 19, 2007 to January 24, 2008, many applicants added family members whom they had not listed when they first applied in 2004. Calle-Noreña, who assumed his post in February 2008, said he could not say whether this meant that the lists had been "politically managed" in 2004. He preferred to dwell on the present, saying the process "is open now and everyone has the possibility of putting the whole family on the application. The re-opening of the application process was completely transparent." Calle-Noreña added that Sahrawis unhappy about the process can approach Arabic-speaking UNHCR staff who circulate regularly in the camps.[249]

Sahrawi camp residents nevertheless voiced frustration with the long wait to participate in the UNHCR program. The demand for participation vastly exceeds the number of spaces. There are presently at least 12,000 applicants on both sides of the divide waiting for their turn in the program. At present, the transportation for the families is limited to an airplane that can accommodate only some 30 persons at a time and is quite costly for the UN to operate. Participation is free for the participants.[250]

Human Rights Watch interviewed one Sahrawi woman who said that when she first applied to the family visit program in 2004, Polisario agents ordered her to apply only for herself and two of her four children, but not for her husband and their two other children. When she embarked on the program in January 2008, the woman, al-'Afia Hammidi, was permitted to bring two children plus her fifth child, who was born in 2006. Upon arriving on the Moroccan-controlled side, she announced her desire to remain and applied at the UNHCR to bring over her remaining two children. Four months later the two children arrived.[251] Calle-Noreña said their transfer "took place with the full cooperation by both sides; there were no political obstacles."[252] The process took time, he said, in order to determine the children's best interests. He added that Hammidi's husband remained in the camps because he did not wish to relocate at this time.

Mohamed Saïd es-Sellami, a man in his early forties who moved to El-Ayoun from the camps, said, "There are three types of people who leave the camps to settle here: people who come out of political conviction, people who want to improve their lives, and people who come just because they are used to moving around." Es-Sellami put himself in the second category, although he added that his tribe, the Sellam, had long ago stopped getting along with the Polisario.[253]

Sellami Sellam, who left the camps in 2006 for El-Ayoun, where he was born in 1958, offered three reasons why Sahrawis remain in the refugee camps: "There are those who are convinced that Western Sahara will one day be independent; there are those who have vested interests in the camps, and there are those who lack the means to leave."[254] In addition to these reasons, many refugees gave family ties as a determining factor in decisions whether to remain in the camps or to return to Moroccan-controlled Western Sahara.

Travel to Destinations other than Mauritania and Moroccan-controlled areas

Traveling to Mauritania, a country that recognizes the SADR, remains the easiest way for residents of the Tindouf camps to exit Algerian territory. Travel to any of the majority of countries that do not recognize the SADR requires Algerian travel documents, for which Sahrawis must apply via the Polisario. We did not hear complaints that the Polisario or Algeria refused persons Algerian travel documents for political reasons. However, present and former camp residents complained that this process can take many months, if not years. Some alleged that those who paid bribes or had Polisario connections got them faster; we were unable to confirm this.

Travel inside Algeria

Camp residents need no permit to visit the nearby city of Tindouf.[255] They may also travel freely between the refugee camps, except during the hours of the nightly curfew. Algerian soldiers staff checkpoints on the roads between the city of Tindouf and the refugee camps. When traveling between the camps, it is sometimes necessary to pass through Algerian checkpoints. None of the refugees HRW interviewed complained that they could not move between the refugee camps.

Travel elsewhere within Algeria requires permission from Algerian authorities, except for the minority of Sahrawis who hold Algerian passports. To obtain such permission, a Sahrawi must apply through Polisario authorities, who forward the request to Algerian authorities.[256] We did not hear that the Polisario prohibited persons from traveling within Algeria because of their political beliefs or activities. It appears, however, that Sahrawi camp residents must provide an "approved" reason for short or extended stays elsewhere in Algeria, such as enrollment in school or professional training. Reportedly, Algerian authorities do not grant permission to Sahrawi camp residents to move, say, to Algiers merely to hunt for a job. Human Rights Watch requested information from Algerian authorities on the freedom of movement enjoyed by Sahrawi refugees within Algeria, but received no reply (see Appendix 7).

Polisario Reportedly Prevents Sahrawi Dissident from Re-Entering Camps

On June 1, 2008, Human Rights Watch learned that Polisario authorities were preventing one camp resident who had left the camps from returning, on the grounds that he was a Moroccan spy. The man, Mohamed Fadhel Baba Abdelhaï (born on April 10, 1961, according to his SADR identity card, and sometimes known as Mohamed Baba Jouli), was among the persons whom Human Rights Watch interviewed about human rights conditions while visiting the camps in November 2007.

Baba Jouli, when interviewed by telephone on September 4, 2008, said that Polisario guards at checkpoints along the Mauritanian-Algerian border had on repeated occasions since late May 2008 prevented him from entering the area under their control.

The Polisario representative in Washington, Mouloud Saïd, confirmed and justified the interdiction, explaining that Baba Jouli "is not a resident of the camps"[257] and his "last place of residency was in Mauritania ….[It] also is just of common sense that no oneworking for the Moroccan intelligence services should live in the camps and we cannot compromise our security; the camps are refugees fleeing the invasion and not made for persons working for the enemy."[258]

Baba Jouli said he was a legitimate camp resident, having lived in the camps since the 1970s and served in the Polisario armed forces. He said his wife, Mounira Makhloul Mohamed Sid Ahmed, and children live in Smara camp. He added that the SADR authorities had renewed his driver's license, number 011252, on October 17, 2007.

Baba Jouli intimated that the Polisario was persecuting him because he supports Khat ech-Chahid, the dissident faction within the Polisario. He flatly denied being a Moroccan spy, saying he favored Sahrawi independence and rejected Morocco's autonomy plan for the Sahara.

Saïd did not reply to a follow-up question as to whether the Polisario ever charged or tried Baba Jouli in connection with his purported activities. He did not clarify the procedure by which Baba Jouli had been stripped of his status as a camp resident.

On the basis of this information, the Polisario's refusal to allow Baba Jouli into the camps seems arbitrary and unjust.

Freedom of Information, Expression, Association and Assembly

Human Rights Watch does not know of any cases during the period we examined – since 2006 – where the Polisario prosecuted publishers or writers for exercising their freedom of expression. The 1999 constitution of the SADR guarantees freedom of expression, oral and written, "in conformity with the law" (Article 29). However, the applicable laws are cause for concern:The broadly worded Article 52bis of the SADR Penal Code imposes a prison sentence of one to five years on "anyone who distributes or puts on sale or publicly displays or owns with the intention of distributing or selling, publications or documents or recordings that could damage the public interest."

The Polisario does not appear to restrict the refugees' access to information, though access is limited by the camps' isolation and poverty of resources. Those who have televisions and satellite dishes are able to receive pan-Arab, Algerian, and Moroccan broadcasts, including the Moroccan state-run regional television channel operating in El-Ayoun. There is an official weekly newspaper, Es-Sahara el-Hurra (Free Sahara), which claims a print run of 10,000.[259]

The camps also have one independent, irregularly published newspaper, El- Mustaqbal es-Sahrawi (The Sahrawi Future). The newspaper and its website, which is accessible in the camps, criticize the Polisario and socio-economic conditions in the camps in a measured fashion.[260] Editor Saïd Zarwal said that because it has few resources, the newspaper has managed to publish only 13 issues since its founding in 1999 and has a print run that averages only about 500 copies.

According to Zarwal, "no edition of the journal has been confiscated, no journalist has been tried before a tribunal much less imprisoned, and there has been no censorship from the Polisario government."[261] Yet he also told Human Rights Watch that, in November 2005, authorities dismissed Yahya Mohamed Salem and Ahmed Badi Mohamed Salem from their positions at the Ministry of Information, allegedly for criticizing the Polisario in articles published in El- Mustaqbal es-Sahrawi, on whose editorial board they sit. The Polisario denied that the two men had been forced from their posts because of their critical writing (see Appendix 6).

Generally speaking, governments may have the right to fire employees who publicly criticize them. In the refugee camps, however, most people, including would-be journalists, depend on public-sector jobs, such that it could be difficult to criticize the government and remain employed.

Many refugee families own mobile phones. They make and receive international calls, although network coverage is spotty and the cost is high. In addition, the UN, as part of its confidence-building measures, installed calling centers in the camps where Sahrawis can call relatives in the Moroccan-controlled Western Sahara for free.

Human Rights Watch visited a public internet center with a dozen Internet-connected computers in the February 27th camp. The camps have a few other Internet cafes. Camp residents who consult the Internet told us that the Polisario did not block or filter websites or e-mail communication. We could access, from a cybercafé, websites that are strongly pro-Moroccan on the issue of Western Sahara and websites where Sahrawis who are not pro-Moroccan criticize the Polisario.

Another venue where camp residents offer and hear criticism of the Polisario is the series of preparatory assemblies that precede the triennial General Popular Congresses. The latter elects the SADR president and members of parliament. Various constituent parts of Sahrawi society organize the preparatory meetings. According to our observation of one such meeting in Smara camp in November 2007, and accounts from persons who had attended others, participants criticize the Polisario's management of socioeconomic problems, such as the shortage of medicine and water, the lack of employment opportunities for young people with diplomas, and low salaries for teachers. Some criticized the Polisario for having achieved little politically by agreeing to a ceasefire with Morocco in 1991, and called for a resumption of the military war.

In conversations with Human Rights Watch, Sahrawis who were willing to be quoted by name criticized the Polisario leadership for its management of day-to-day camp affairs and for alleged nepotism and favoritism of one tribal faction over others. For example, Mohamed Fadhel Baba Abdelhai, of the Smara camp, told us that while he supported the Polisario and the national cause, the Polisario had marginalized his tribal faction (the Ayaichi) and was "corrupt, greedy, and oppressive."[262] Black Sahrawis were willing to be quoted by name when reproaching the Polisario for failing to eradicate all vestiges of slavery in the camps (see chapter on slavery, below).

"You can say there's corruption, bribery. They let you say these things. Youmight find yourself marginalized, but that's it. What you cannot do is say you support Morocco or its Sahara autonomy plan. That is a red line," said Mohamed Salem Bani, a 43-year-old tank mechanic who left the camps in December 2007 and who favors the Moroccan plan.[263]

Human Rights Watch did not encounter, or learn about, Sahrawis living in the refugee camps who openly rejected the Polisario and favored Morocco's plan. It was not possible to gauge the number of camp residents who hold these views. It appears, however, that Sahrawis wishing to break openly with the Polisario and defend Morocco's plan tend to abandon the camps rather than attempt to rally support from within.

Their inability to organize politically inside is attributable less to direct Polisario repression, of which we found no solid evidence, and more to the highly "mobilized" political structure of the camps. The Polisario controls most resources and their distribution, and maintains well-regimented structures at every level of society, such as loyal mass organizations.

When asked to describe dissident voices within the camps, the only name that camp residents recognized was the group known as Khat ech-Chahid (Arabic for "the Line of the Martyr"), founded in 2003 and led by Mahjoub Salek (nom de guerre: "Jeffaf"), a Sahrawi who now lives in Bilbao, Spain. According to its website,, Khat ech-Chahid is a reformist strand within the Polisario that seeks to bring it back to its true mission.[264] It urges "a definitive break with the prevalent corruption, irresponsible policies and arbitrary decisions … and an end to the never-ending succession of [President] Mohamed Abdelaziz to himself at the summit of corruption and arbitrariness." In interviews, Salek urged genuinely transparent elections for the leadership positions in the movement.[265]

While visiting the camps, Human Rights Watch met with Mohamed Mouloud Ould Mohamed Sid Ahmed (nom de guerre: "Tchirouni"), the movement's apparent spokesman in the camps.

Khat ech-Chahid's popular support is hard to measure but appears limited. Many Sahrawis had heard of it only vaguely, if at all. Others dismissed it as a small group with no base. It has not emerged as a force that poses a serious challenge to the Polisario's current leadership.

Mahjoub Salek maintains that Polisario authorities have taken measures to hinder Khat ech-Chahid. In a phone conversation with Human Rights Watch, he accused the Polisario of preventing the group from holding an inaugural congress. Mahjoub recounted that Khat ech-Chahid had decided to hold the event in the camps on February 27, 2006, without awaiting the permission of the authorities. But as the date approached he sensed strong police surveillance, decided to abort the congress, and, fearing for his own safety, left for Mauritania.[266]

Human Rights Watch has so far been unable to corroborate Salek's claims, which the Polisario categorically denies.[267] Although the Polisario imprisoned him in the 1980s, they did not arrest him since he co-founded Khat ech-Chahid. Although Salek now lives in Spain and has not returned to the camps recently, "Tchirouni" lives in the camps, where he said he has suffered no consequences for advocating the group's views. "Tchirouni" did not mention any Polisario efforts to block Khat ech-Chahid's efforts to organize, but he did say that other members preferred to remain anonymous, fearing they could lose their public-sector jobs for identifying with the movement. Both "Tchirouni" and Salek concurred that the Polisario had arrested no one for being in, or close to, the group, but Salek added, "While no one has been arrested for being with Khat ech-Chahid, they are monitored and […] asked whom they meet with."[268]

The only two other opposition groups mentioned as operating in the camps were the Sahrawi Assembly for Democracy and Human Rights, founded in 2005, and the Free Officers Movement. But few camp residents had heard of these groups, and they seemed to have little mass support or visibility and few activities.

Foreign journalists who visit the camps these days are generally free to move about the camps without minders or being visibly monitored. However, in at least one incident, Polisario authorities confronted journalists working on a story that would have brought them unwelcome coverage and, in effect, forced them to leave.

Australian filmmakers Dan Fallshaw and Violeta Ayala had come to the camps in April 2007 to film a documentary on Sahrawis separated for a generation by the Berm (see Historical Background section, above). On this visit, they encountered aspects of slavery that continued to be practiced in the camps against members of the dark-skinned minority. They had been filming scenes and interviews to support their findings when, on May 2, Polisario officials confronted and detained them. According to Ayala, the Polisario officials asked them to surrender their film footage in exchange for their release. Fallshaw and Ayala refused. After negotiations in the presence of UN officials, the Polisario released them later the same day. Although the Polisario did not expel Fallshaw and Ayala from the camps, the pair left the camps anyway, judging that it would have been too hazardous for them to continue their investigation.[269] The Polisario denied ever detaining the filmmakers.[270]

Places of Detention

According to Justice Minister Hamada Selma, at present there are four places of detention in the Tindouf camps: a men's prison near Rabouni camp, a women's prison near Smara camp, a center for juvenile offenders, and a facility for housing women who have had children out-of-wedlock, near the old National Hospital, outside of Smara camp.

The Polisario denies that there are any other places of detention besides these facilities and the holding cells located in police stations. Some facilities that were used in the past as prisons, such as edh-Dhahibiya and er-Rachid, are no longer prisons, Selma said. Edh-Dhahibiya was closed around the beginning of 2007.

There are persistent allegations that the Polisario operates secret places of detention. With respect to the period we examined – 2006 to the present – no one we interviewed, including Sahrawis who had recently worked in the Polisario security forces before resettling in the Moroccan-controlled Western Sahara, claimed to have information about unacknowledged places of detention or of prisoners being held in secret. However, more than one said that the Polisario did operate such facilities in the past.

Minister Selma invited Human Rights Watch on November 10 to visit any of the detention facilities we wished to see. We asked to visit the men's prison and went there that evening. The prison is located in a walled compound about one-half hour's drive from Rabouni camp. Officials allowed us to walk around freely in the prison and to interview prisoners at will. The prison director told us that, at the time of our visit, the facility held 21 civilian prisoners and three military prisoners. Most of the inmates lived in two group cells. A few lived in two-man cells.

The very small population of the facility made it unlikely that, even in the private, one-on-one interviews we conducted, inmates felt that they could criticize to us the prison administration or the authorities without their identities becoming known. For this reason, while welcoming the Polisario's willingness to let us tour the prison, we cannot consider our visit to have been thorough.

The prison director told us that all of the inmates had been sentenced for common crimes. The longest sentence was fifteen years, imposed for a homicide committed in the course of a robbery. We met one prisoner who was serving a five-month sentence for auto theft. He had been caught red-handed and confessed to the deed, he said, and had no complaints about the process or his punishment. None of the several prisoners we interviewed stated that any of their fellow prisoners was being held for anything other than common criminal offenses.

Our informal visit to the prison did not permit a careful evaluation of the material conditions. We were nonetheless concerned by the wing of punishment cells, which were unfit for human habitation, even if inmates are permitted to leave them for extended periods each day.

We received contradictory information about the maximum period of time prisoners could be reassigned to a punishment cell: One source said 20 days, another said 30. At the time of our visit, two men were confined in the punishment wing. Its cells measured approximately 1.5 meters wide by 2 meters long. The walls were moist and crumbling.

The occupant of one of these cells whom we met was visibly in poor health. He declined a request for an interview, and we could not determine whether he was there as a punishment or to isolate him from the healthy inmates. In either case, the UN Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners states in Rule 10, "All accommodation provided for the use of prisoners and in particular all sleeping accommodation shall meet all requirements of health, due regard being paid to climatic conditions and particularly to cubic content of air, minimum floor space, lighting, heating and ventilation." Also relevant is Rule 22.2: "Sick prisoners who require specialist treatment shall be transferred to specialized institutions or to civil hospitals."[271]

Justice Minister Selma told us that at the time of our visit there were six inmates in the women's prison and none in the juvenile facility or in the center for holding unmarried women who had given birth or were pregnant. We did not visit any of these facilities.

However, Human Rights Watch received disturbing and contradictory information from the justice minister regarding the facility for unmarried mothers. In a meeting on November 10, 2007, Selma said the purpose of the facility was to protect these women and their children from so-called "crimes of honor." He mentioned by way of example the case of a camp resident who had killed her out-of-wedlock child to fend off social pressure.

Selma said that a judge could confine a woman in this center without her consent if the judge determined her to be at risk. She could be released, the minister said, if she resolved her problem with her family, got married, or relocated to a different camp.

In a letter to SADR President Mohamed Abdelaziz, we asked the legal basis for the detention of women with out-of-wedlock children; what safeguards were in place to ensure that women and children in "protective" detention would not remain in custody indefinitely; under what circumstances women could leave the center voluntarily; and whether any persons had been prosecuted for threatening to harm unmarried female relatives who became pregnant.

Justice Minister Selma responded to our inquiry. He stated that the women in this facility, known as the Center for Maternity Assistance, are in fact prisoners serving sentences for the offense of adultery, pursuant to the SADR Penal Code.[272] "Generally," he noted, "the rate at which these cases occur is between three and five per year."

Selma wrote that the center "attends to the physical and emotional health of the woman and the health of her child, both before and after birth, and protects both of them from possible revenge attacks."[273] The minister did not clarify whether authorities had prosecuted anyone for threatening to attack a woman in this situation.

On May 14, 2008, Human Rights Watch asked the Polisario to clarify whether the women housed in the Center for Maternity Assistance were all convicted prisoners serving finite terms imposed by courts of law, or included women detained preventively, either without a criminal conviction or after the completion of their sentences. Minister Selma replied without clarifying the matter:

Sahrawi law specifies that there can be no crime or punishment without a legal text and this is what makes it hard, from a legal perspective, to order any detention without a law that provides for it, even if the detention is in an establishment whose foremost purpose is protection and rehabilitation …. The institution that is responsible for this kind of women [is] more social than punitive in character. As such, the judiciary imposes verdicts that are limited to a time period long enough to address the legal, psychological and social aspects of the phenomenon, to protect the mother and child, and to reintegrate the person in question into society.[274]

Hoping to receive a clear-cut answer, Human Rights Watch wrote back with a single question: "Are some of the women who are in this facility there "protectively" – either without having been tried and convicted of an offense, or after the expiration of a court-imposed prison term but because they are deemed to still need protection?"

The Justice Minister's chef de cabinet, Mahfouz Lahsane, replied ambiguously, "All women who are presently in the Center for Maternity Assistance are there for their own protection and will leave once the reasons why they were entered the establishment no longer obtain."[275]

Human Rights Watch does not know the conditions that prevail at the Center for Maternity Assistance. We nevertheless have concerns about the facility, whether its inmates are serving judicially imposed sentences or are confined simply for their supposed protection.

First, we oppose laws criminalizing consensual sex between adults as an infringement on the right to privacy, and urge the repeal of such statutes. No man or woman belongs in prison for such consensual acts. With respect to women at risk of "honor crimes" because of their putative sexual activity, the state has an obligation to protect them, whether or not they have been convicted of an offense. A state-run shelter for women who choose to reside in it may afford a useful means of protection, provided that each woman is free to leave. To confine a woman in such a facility who was not convicted, or who has already completed her sentence, violates her right not to be arbitrarily detained. We are concerned that the treatment of women at this facility may resemble the practices followed by other governments in the region that detain women without a trial and against their will, ostensibly for their own protection, because they are suspected of having committed "moral offenses."[276]

Rather than detaining potential victims of "honor crimes," Polisario authorities should protect women and girls from violence, treat victims of violence, and ensure that those who perpetrate or threaten violence are punished. UNHCR has noted that women and girls who are victims, or face the risk, of sexual and gender-based violence should be interviewed, counseled and treated by social and community workers trained "to identify and provide remedies," and that, rather than detention, authorities should "provide emergency relocation, if necessary, for refugee women who may be particularly exposed to abuse."[277]

Allegations of Slavery

One of the most firmly established laws in international human rights is the prohibition of slavery. When systematic or widespread, acts of slavery can constitute crimes against humanity, as reflected in the work of international criminal tribunals and the 1998 statute of the International Criminal Court.

In 2007 two Australian documentary filmmakers who had been filming in the camps stated that they had found evidence that dark-skinned refugees in the camps were victims of ongoing, traditional practices of slavery (see above, section on Freedom of Information, Expression, Assembly, and Association). Polisario officials emphasized that although Sahrawi tribes had practiced slavery in the past,[278] the Polisario has been committed to eradicating it. President Abdelaziz told Human Rights Watch, "If you find any evidence of slavery, bring it to our attention." Justice Minister Hamada Selma said, "Since the beginning of the revolution, we have completely forbidden slavery. Not merely through legislation, but through a campaign of consciousness-raising and investigation. Since 1976, not a single case involving slavery has been brought before the institutions of the Justice Ministry." He added that you will find white and black families linked to one another through the relationship of "nasib," [kinsmanship] but "this cannot be equated with slavery."[279]

While visiting the camps, Human Rights Watch interviewed approximately eight black-skinned Sahrawis about the issue of slavery, in the 27 February camp and El-Ayoun camp. Their testimony was consistent and can be summarized as follows: Black-skinned Sahrawis constitute a small minority of the population in the camps. Some members of that minority are "owned" by "white" persons or families. An "owner" previously enjoyed broad rights, de facto, over the "slave," but today, those "rights" are limited largely to one realm: the "owner's" ability to grant or withhold consent for a "slave" woman's marriage, a consent without which a religious judge (qadi) will decline to perform the marriage. As one Sahrawi put it, "I don't really know if I'm a slave or free until my daughter tries to get married." A male "slave," on the other hand, faces no such constraint when he wishes to marry.

Slavery negates the victim's very legal personality. It is defined as "the status or condition of a person over whom any or all the powers attaching to the right of ownership are exercised."[280] It thus includes the practice whereby an "owner" can prevent a woman from marrying.

Allegations of Slavery as it Affects Marriage

Our several black informants characterized the persistence of slavery as it relates to the marriage of women as a vestige of past practices that survived in spite of the Polisario's opposition to slavery, and that is related to practices that persist in Mauritania, a neighboring country with cultural and ethnic links to the Sahrawis.

Salem Ahmed Embarek, a 31-year-old resident of 27 February camp, said,

If you're a slave, you can't give your daughter in marriage. If you want to marry her to another slave, the owner might disagree …. The owner doesn't have to write his consent but has to be at the wedding for a girl. He must give her away in marriage as if she were his own daughter.

Salem continued,

We're not afraid of the government [hearing that we talked to Human Rights Watch about slavery] because they agree with us – they want to suppress this practice [slavery] …. We asked the president to fix the issue of marriage …. The president said he hadn't heard of this problem, but that he would address it.[281]

One woman, Halima Abbi Bilal, told Human Rights Watch that she and her three sisters had moved to the refugee camps from Western Sahara with their owner in 1978, and that at that time the Polisario successfully pressured the owner to stop forcing the sisters to provide unpaid domestic labor.[282] "Since that time, we have all worked for ourselves." Yet one of Halima's three daughters, N'keltoum Mahmoud, said that her family's "owner" had, since October 2006, refused to give his consent to her marriage to a neighbor's son. Halima said:


The owner said, "If your daughter is going to marry [… we] had to give him a son to go work with him as a shepherd." We said "no," and he said, "Then none of your daughters can marry."…. This sort of thing used to happen all the time but not anymore, that's why it's not right that he's doing it to us!

Halima told Human Rights Watch that when she complained to qadi's (judges) at the neighborhood and district levels in her camp (El-Ayoun), and at the court of first instance in a neighboring refugee camp (Aouserd), they all told her that the matter was in the hands of the owner. She said that she delivered a letter of complaint to the Ministry of Justice on December 10, 2006, but that officials had failed to respond.

At the time that Halima talked to us, her daughter had still not married. Halima said that although she could ask an Algerian judge in the city of Tindouf to conduct the marriage ceremony, the marriage would not be recognized in the Sahrawi camps.

The Polisario minister of justice, Hamada Selma, told Human Rights Watch that his ministry had been informed of no cases of persons being forced to marry or prevented from marrying by their owners. He added, however, that "marriage here is subject to the Maliki madhhab [school of Islamic jurisprudence], which requires that any bikr [unmarried virgin woman] – black or white – who is to marry requires the permission of the wali al-amr [guardian]."[283]

Human Rights Watch submitted to Polisario authorities an account of N'Keltoum's case (see Appendix 3) and received the following explanation:

Questioning the local qadi and reviewing the relevant records he keeps proved that this woman had not contacted the qadi or asked him to marry her daughter to anybody….
The employee (the manager of Justice and Religious Issues in El-Ayoun province) whom the woman contacted is an administrative and not a judicial official and is not authorized to consider such cases. He told her that she had to contact her "master," and if there is a dispute, she should refer the matter to the court.
The woman did not contact the Aouserd family court and filed no lawsuit in this regard….
Building on the above findings, the Ministry has decided to suspend the responsibilities of the above-mentioned manager because of the … mistakes he committed….
[T]he governor of El-Ayoun Province, who had not known about the case, called Ms. Halima and told her she had the right to marry her daughter whenever she wanted and that the district qadi was ready to marry her to whomever she liked. Halima declared that all barriers blocking the marriage of her daughter have been removed and that she was planning to proceed with the marriage…[284]

Reached by telephone on May 27, 2008, Halima confirmed that since she informed Human Rights Watch in November 2007 of the obstacles to her daughter's marriage, authorities had intervened in the case and lifted all administrative obstacles. She said that governor of El-Ayoun and Polisario Front directorate member M'hamed Khadad had both paid her visits.

Manumission Papers

Several camp residents told Human Rights Watch of a process whereby "owners" could free their slaves by drawing up and signing a document to that effect, and that these documents needed, further, to be stamped or otherwise authorized by officials in the camps. Almost none of the persons we interviewed, however, said they had actually seen such documents. Halima Abbi Bilal told us:

A family I know from Aouserd camp got this paper, stamped by the qadi. You need the stamp to say it's official and authentic in case someone later claims you as his property. First the "owner" and the qadi of the daïra [district] sign it; then the qadi of the wilaya [province] stamps it.[285]

One Sahrawi man showed Human Rights Watch a one-page document that he said his family's "owner" had decided to write in order to free his slaves. The hand-written document was entitled "freeing of a slave," (tahrir er-raqaba). It bore the date of June 13, 2007 and an ink stamp reading, "Court of First Instance, Aouserd [camp]." (See Appendix 8.) The document states that the "owner," Mohamed Salem M'hamed Hilal, frees two women, Mbarka Hamma M'hamed and Mas'ouda Hamma M'hamed, and their children. The document appears to bear signatures over stamps that read "President of the Court" and "SADR, Ministry of Justice and Religious Affairs, Court of First Instance of Aouserd, Office of the Registrar (Maslahat Kitaba edh-Dhabet)." The man bearing this document explained:

[My family's owner] decided to sign this because he's old and wants to free my family before he dies. Not much has changed as a result, only that my daughters can now get married needing only my permission. This document names my wife, her sister, and their daughters. It frees two families[286]

Polisario officials denied that any judges or other public servants would take part in drafting or authenticating manumission documents such as this one. Justice Minister Selma told us that since slavery was illegal under SADR law, a document that implicitly recognized slavery, if only to nullify it in a particular case, had no legal value, and therefore no judge or other public servant would have taken part in drafting or authenticating a manumission document.

When Human Rights Watch showed the minister a copy of the above-mentioned document appearing to bear the ink stamp of the Aouserd court, he called it an obvious forgery. He produced an example of official stationery that bore a Ministry of Justice watermark, seal, and number, and that, he said, is the only type of stationery on which official acts could be recorded.

Asked if he could explain the alleged forgery, Minister Selma replied, "These documents are remnants from the past." he said, "People who had slaves, and wanted to do something formal to show that they had freed them, drew up such a document, maybe with the help of some shuyoukh (community elders)."[287]

A black Sahrawi who identified himself as a public official but speaking in his personal capacity told us:

The courts would not deal with such cases, because they're between the family and the 'owned' person. It's Islamic law: To free an 'owned' person, you just need to bring two witnesses. There are ceremonies for freeing slaves. They happen not in court but under a tent, between families. Elders are brought in, and they sign the document.[288]

Human Rights Watch is not in a position to determine the source or authenticity of the manumission document. One possibility is that it is neither a forgery nor a fully official document of the court, but that a local qadi had a hand in its preparation. A foreign scholar living in the camps told Human Rights Watch that the majority of neighborhood-level qadi'swere not full-fledged public employees but rather part of a traditional justice system.[289]

In any event, the manumission document in question closely resembles ones that have been issued in Mauritania. The issue bears further study.

The Case of "Saltana"

A custody battle in a court in Spain drew attention to the issue of slavery in the Tindouf camps. The dispute involved the fate of a black Sahrawi girl known by her first name of Saltana, who, like thousands of other Sahrawi children from the Tindouf camps, spent a summer vacationing with a host family in Spain. The host family then asked a court to grant them custody of Saltana on various grounds, including that Saltana is enslaved by the family with whom she lives in the camps and does not wish to return to a life of slavery.

Both the Polisario and Saltana's biological mother contested this version of events, and asked the Spanish courts to order Saltana's return to the refugee camps, where the biological mother now lives.

Saltana came to Murcia, Spain at the age of eight or nine to spend the summer of 2002 with Rosa Maria Sanchez and her family. Sanchez petitioned a Spanish court successfully to allow the girl to stay on for needed medical care. Later, Sanchez claims to have discovered, through conversations with Saltana and a trip that Sanchez made to Tindouf, that in the camps Saltana lived as a slave with a white family and that the mother in this family, Guevara el-Bardi, is not Saltana's biological parent.[290] Sanchez added the allegation of slavery to her legal arguments in favor of allowing Saltana to remain in Spain.

Human Rights Watch did not interview Saltana. El País daily spoke with her, in the company of Sanchez, after Saltana had resided in Spain for six years. According to the Spanish daily, Saltana said that when she arrived in the Tindouf camps to live with the el-Bardi family:

I was told what I had to do: rise very early and do household chores, while the other children in the family attended school. For this reason, I do not want to return to Tindouf. The Sahara is not my country, and I would not return there. They would mistreat me like before, and I would go back to being a slave to this family.[291]

The Polisario provided an entirely different account of Saltana's life. It stated that Saltana was born in 1994 and grew up in the Mauritanian city of Zouérat with her biological mother, Knana Salek. In 2001, according to the Polisario, Knana Salek asked a visitor from the Tindouf camps, Guevara el-Bardi, to take Saltana with her back to the camps so that she could attend school there. Saltana lived with the el-Bardi family during the 2001-2002 academic year while attending elementary school. In the summer, she departed for the summer-in-Spain program.

The Polisario argued that the host family in Spain used false claims of slavery in their legal battle to keep Saltana with them:

[Saltana] lived in the camps only for [some] months with [Guevara] el-Bardi and was enrolled and actually studying at school, which is why she could take part, like her classmates, in the summer vacation program in Spain. Had slavery been the purpose of bringing her from Zouérat, would Saltana have enrolled in school? Would she have benefited from the summer vacation in Spain … if she had been enslaved? How and where did the Sanchez family come to know Saltana? Was she sent to them in chains?[292]

Rosa Maria Sanchez, when asked why a Sahrawi family would let their nine-year-old "slave" travel to Europe to summer with a Spanish family, answered that she did not know but said they had apparently sent her to Spain with a list of household products to purchase and bring back, including a solar panel and a pressure cooker.[293]

SOS Esclaves, the respected Mauritanian nongovernmental organization, visited Knana Salek, Saltana's biological mother, and investigated the case. It concluded that Knana Salek's family has no blood relationship with the el-Bardi family. While Salek did not confirm that she and her children were enslaved by the el-Bardi family, she said that her grandmother had raised Guevara el-Bardi. SOS Esclaves reported that the mother had sent Saltana to live in the Tindouf camps in order to attend school there, after Saltana had been expelled from school in Zouérat for performing poorly. SOS was careful to say they had no proof of slavery in this case but said the facts were consistent with either slavery or with trafficking in child labor. They stressed that slavery as it is practiced today does not preclude an owner permitting her "slave" to summer abroad.[294]

On April 30 2008, a civil court of appeals (la Audiencia Provincial) in Murcia, Spain affirmed a lower-court decision awarding guardianship of Saltana to the Sanchez family. The court determined that this outcome was in the child's best interest. In justifying this decision, the court in its written ruling made no mention of the slavery issue.[295]

In sum, credible sources testified to Human Rights Watch about vestiges of slavery that continue to affect the lives of a portion of the black minority in the Tindouf camps. The practices involve historical ties between families that involve certain rights and obligations that are not always clear. Being a slave does not necessarily preclude enjoying freedom of movement.

The issue of slavery in the Tindouf camps deserves closer scrutiny than Human Rights Watch has been able to undertake. It bears mentioning that Sahrawis in the Moroccan-controlled Western Sahara told us that residual practices of slavery can be found there, as well.

Responding to questions about slavery, the Polisario has acknowledged the survival, "to a limited extent, of certain practices related to antiquated thinking" and said it was "determined to combat and eradicate them whenever they emerge and no matter what shape they take." We welcome this statement and urge the Polisario to be vigilant in pursuing this objective.

[213] For Moroccan abuses, see, e.g.: Amnesty International, "Morocco/ Western Sahara: Human Rights Violations in Western Sahara," AI Index: MDE 29/04/96, April 18,1996, (accessed December 3, 2008); for Polisario abuses, see, e.g., France Libertés, "The Conditions of Detentions of the Moroccan POWs Detained in Tindouf (Algeria), Report of the International Mission of Inquiry, 11th-25th April 2003," an English translation of the French original, at (accessed December 3, 2008).

[214] See, e.g., Amnesty International, "Morocco: A Pattern of Political Imprisonment, 'Disappearances,' and Torture," March 1991, and "Breaking the Wall of Silence: The 'Disappeared' in Morocco," AI Index: MDE 29/01/93, April 1993, (accessed November 26, 2008), and "Morocco: The Pattern of Political Imprisonment Must End," May 1994, AI Index: MDE 29/01/94,$File/MDE2900194.pdf (accessed November 26, 2008); Association de Défense des Droits de l'Homme au Maroc (ASDHOM), "La Disparition et les 'Disparus' au Maroc," Paris, 1994; International Federation of Human Rights, "Les disparitions forcées au Maroc: répondre aux exigences de vérité et de justice," November 2000, (accessed November 26, 2008). Sahrawis were far from the only victims of "disappearances" carried out by the Moroccan authorities.

[215] Human Rights Watch, Morocco's Truth Commission: Honoring Past Victims during an Uncertain Present, vol. 17, no. 11(E), November 2005,

[216] Amnesty International, "Human Rights Violations in Western Sahara," AI Index: MDE 29/04/96, April 18, 1996, pp. 15-16; (accessed December 1, 2008). The Amnesty International report cites as examples: "Those detained in the late 1980s include Khalif Laroussi Zaougai, who was detained in 1987 upon arrival in the camps, and Salama Khbaou, who was detained at the end of 1989, three months after he had arrived in the camps. They were both reportedly detained until mid-1991. Some detainees died in custody, reportedly as a result of torture and ill-treatment. Among them was El Mehdi Othman Souayah, who was reported to have been detained in 1976 and to have died in detention in late 1977, and Mohamed Moussa ould Mokhtar, who was reported to have been detained at the beginning of 1983 and to have died in custody in subsequent years."

[217] Ibid. The report further noted that Morocco had failed to investigate "former Polisario figures who held positions of responsibility in the Polisario security apparatus, and who are alleged to have been responsible for human rights abuses in the refugee camps" and who now reside in Morocco after having left the camps.

[218] See, e.g., Committee for the Bringing Together of Sahrawi Families, Association of Parents of Sahrawi Victims of Repression within the Camps of Tindouf, Association of al-Massira for the Defense of the Rights of the Confined Persons and of the Moroccan Prisoners within the Camps of Tindouf, The Truth about the Polisario Prisons in the South of Algeria, Salé (Morocco), no date.

[219] See Appendix 6, "Response of the Polisario Front, dated May 6, 2008, to the letter of Human Rights Watch of April 1, 2008."

[220]The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) had registered 2,155 POWs in the camps from 1984 to October 1995. Human Rights Watch, Keeping It Secret, text accompanying footnotes 147-148. See also BBC News, "Polisario releases Moroccan POWs," September 2, 2003, at The ICRC repatriated the final 404 POWs to Morocco on August 18, 2005. ICRC, Annual Report 2005: Middle East and North Africa, p. 334,$file/icrc_ar_05_middle-east.pdf?openelement (accessed December 4, 2008).

[221] Human Rights Watch, Keeping It Secret, text accompanying footnotes 151-53.

[222] Ibid., text accompanying footnotes 150 and 154-55.

[223] France Libertés, "The Conditions of Detentions of the Moroccan POWs."

[224]Polisario Front, "Response to the Report Released by Fondation 'France Libertés' on The Conditions of Detention of the Moroccan Prisoners of War (POWs) Held by the Polisario Front," September 2003.

[225] For example, the Security Council in resolution 1495/2003 of July 31, 2003, "reaffirms its call upon the Polisario Front to release without further delay all remaining prisoners of war in compliance with international humanitarian law." (accessed May 15, 2008).

[226] "In effect, the evocation of the cease-fire and the cessation of active hostilities in this particular context is inadequate legally and politically, given that Morocco continues eschewing its commitments and harbouring hostility at military, political and legal levels." Polisario Front, "Response to the Report Released by Fondation 'France Libertés.'"

[227] BBC News, "Last Moroccan war prisoners freed," August 18, 2005, online at (accessed December 3, 2008).

[228] Human Rights Watch interview with M'hamed Khadad, 27 February camp, November 13, 2007.

[229]Human Rights Watch interview, Foum el-Oued, Western Sahara, March 7, 2008.

[230] See, e.g., "Situation Explosive dans les camps de Tindouf,"Sahara, June 2, 2006, (accessed December 3, 2008).

[231]"Algérie: une région coupée du monde,", June 2, 2006,; re-posted elsewhere as "Tindouf : Black out sur un massacre orchestré par le Polisario," (accessed December 3, 2008).

[232] Human Rights Watch interview with Mohamed Lamine Salameh Mohamed, 27 February camp, November 12, 2007.

[233] Human Rights Watch interview with Justice Minister Hamada Selma, Rabouni camp, November 13, 2007.

[234] Human Rights Watch interview with Mohamed Ahmed Ibrahim, 27 February camp, November 12, 2007.

[235]Human Rights Watch interview with Mohamed Lamine Salameh Mohamed, November 12, 2007.

[236] Human Rights Watch interview with Hathiya Salama M'hamed, 27 February camp, November 12, 2007.

[237] Human Rights Watch interview with Hamada Selma, Rabouni camp, November 13, 2007. Articles 86 states, "Any association or coming together of persons, no matter how long it lasts or how many persons it involves, that is formed for the purpose of committing crimes against persons or property or belongings, shall constitute the crime of forming a criminal association, an association that is considered to have been established the moment that the common mission is decided upon." This offense is punishable by one to three years in prison, as per Article 87.

[238]See Appendix 6.

[239] Human Rights Watch interview with Hamada Selma, Rabouni camp, November 13, 2007.

[241] "Le Maroc continuera d'exiger un recensement des Marocains séquestrés dans les camps de Tindouf,"website of the government of Morocco, April 4, 2008, (accessed December 4, 2008).

[242] See Appendix 6.

[243] Human Rights Watch interview, El-Ayoun, March 8, 2008. The source asked to remain anonymous, fearing reprisals against family members who were still in the refugee camps.

[244] Human Rights Watch interview with Ghlaili Hanini, Foum el-Oued, March 5, 2008.

[245] Human Rights Watch interview with Yeslim Ould Ismail Ould el-Melkhi, Foum el-Oued, March 5, 2008.

[246] Human Rights Watch interview with Abdallah Mala'ainine, El-Ayoun, March 5, 2008.

[247] Human Rights Watch interview with Hamdi Abidi el-Bachir, Foum el-Oued, March 7, 2008.

[248]Human Rights Watch telephone interview with Sergio Calle-Noreña, UNHCR chief of operations for the Western Sahara, May 9, 2008. Calle-Noreña left this post later in 2008.

[249] Human Rights Watch telephone interview with Sergio Calle-Noreña, May 9, 2008.

[250] Morocco and the Polisario are exploring, under UN auspices, the initiation of land travel that could accommodate a far greater number of participants in the family visit program.

[251] Human Rights Watch interview with Al-Afia Hammidi, Washington, DC, May 9, 2008.

[252] Human Rights Watch telephone interview with Sergio Calle-Noreña, May 9, 2008.

[253] Human Rights Watch interview with Mohamed Saïd es-Sellami, El-Ayoun, March 7, 2008.

[254] Human Rights Watch interview with Sellami Sellam, El-Ayoun, March 6, 2008.

[255] Human Rights Watch observed unarmed Polisario guards manning checkpoints at the entrance to each refugee camp we visited, and armed Algerian soldiers manning checkpoints between the camps and the city of Tindouf. These guards presumably check whether travelers are carrying Polisario national identity cards. The Polisario interior minister said that the Polisario issues such cards to every camp resident at the age of 18. The ID card, according to the minister, cannot be revoked or suspended, and is all that is required for travel between the refugee camps and in the Polisario-controlled zone of Western Sahara. Human Rights Watch interview with Mohamed Lamine Dedi, SADR interior minister, Rabouni camp, November 13, 2007.

[256]Interviews with Sahrawis inside and outside the camps, as well as an email from UNHCR officials, confirmed this. Human Rights Watch interview with Denis Alma Kuindje, UNHCR Protection Officer, November 10, 2007, Rabouni Camp; Human Rights Watch telephone interview, Elkanti Bela, former camp resident now living in Paris, January 31, 2008. According to the Polisario interior minister, a refugee can file his application at the daïra (district) or wilaya (camp) level, or through the Polisario office in the Algerian city of Tindouf. Human Rights Watch interview with Mohamed Lamine Dedi, November 13, 2008, Rabouni Camp.

[257] Email communication from Mouloud Saïd to Human Rights Watch, June 6, 2008.

[258] Email communication Mouloud Saïd to Human Rights Watch, June 27, 2008.

[259] An edition is online at Information about the newspaper can be found in Arabic at the official RASD website, (accessed April 22, 2008).

[260]E.g., "87% de los jóvenes Saharauis desea emigrar al extranjero," (87% of Sahrawi youth want to emigrate to foreign countries), (accessed December 7, 2008), and "Las luchas internas y los 'negocios,' destruyen la capacidad reaccion del Frente Polisario," (Internal struggles and 'wheeling-dealing' are destroying the Polisario's capacity to react), (accessed October 15, 2008).

[261] Email communications from Saïd Zarwal to Human Rights Watch, February 4 and 7, 2008. A study of press freedom in Africa quotes him voicing concern about the "absence of juridical protection, which is a logical consequence of the absence of a law protecting journalists in our country." See "Western Sahara," in Rainer Chr. Hennig et al., Access to technology and press freedom in West Africa: A study by Afrol News, Canarias SA and the Editors Forum of West Africa (Las Palmas / Conakry: 2005), (accessed December 5, 2008).

[262] Human Rights Watch interview with Mohamed Fadhel Baba Abdelhai, 27 February camp, November 12, 2007.

[263] Human Rights Watch interview with Mohamed Salem Bani, Foum el-Oued, March 7, 2008.

[264] The "eluali" in the website's URL and the "martyr" in the name of the organization is El-Ouali Moustapha es-Sayyed, the founding leader of the Polisario Front, who died in battle in 1976.

[265]"Interview Mahjoub Salek: 'Le Maroc n'a rien compris au Sahara,'"Telquel, October 14-20, 2006, (accessed December 6, 2008).

[266] Human Rights Watch telephone interview with Mahjoub Salek, January 3, 2008.

[267] See Appendix 6 of this report.

[268] Human Rights Watch telephone interview with Mahjoub Salek, January 3, 2008.

[269]Email communication from Violeta Ayala to Human Rights Watch, April 14, 2008. See Reporters Without Borders, "Polisario Front briefly detains two Australian filmmakers at refugee camp," press release, May 9, 2007, (accessed December 6, 2008).

[270] For the Polisario's version of the incident involving Fallshaw and Ayala, see "The Case against 'Born in Captivity,'" a brochure issued by the SADR Ministry of Culture in 2008.

[271] Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners, adopted by the First United Nations Congress on the Prevention of Crime and the Treatment of Offenders, held at Geneva in 1955, and approved by the Economic and Social Council by its resolution 663 C (XXIV) of 31 July 1957 and 2076 (LXII) of 13 May 1977, (accessed November 17, 2008).

[272] Article 170 of the code states, "Adultery is punishable with a one to five-year prison sentence. The same sentence is applicable to pregnant women."

[273]See Appendix 6 of this report.

[274] Email communication from Justice Minister Hamada Selma to Human Rights Watch, May 17, 2008.

[275] Email communication from Mahfouz Lahsane to Human Rights Watch, May 24, 2008.

[276] In Libya, for example, women and girls suspected of transgressing moral codes are detained in "social rehabilitation" centers that are portrayed as "protective" homes but are de facto prisons, where inmates may be detained indefinitely, and where many reported abuse by guards. See Human Rights Watch, Libya: A Threat to Society? Arbitrary Detention of Women and Girls for "Social Rehabilitation, February 2006,

[277] UNHCR, "Guidelines on the Protection of Refugee Women," July 1991, para. 49 "Help for the Abused," (accessed December 7, 2008). See also UNHCR, "Agenda for Protection," "Goal 6: Meeting the Protection Needs of Refugee Women and Refugee Children," (accessed December 7, 2008).

[278] According to Tony Hodges, slavery existed but there were few slaves in traditional Saharawi society. "At the top [of Sahrawi society] were free qabael [tribes], known either as ahel mdafa … or shorfa .… At the bottom of the social scale were castes of craftsmen (maalemin) and bards (iggawen), who were attached to qabael of free or tributary status, and finally the slaves (abid) and freed-yet-dependent haratin …. Together, the ahel mdafa and the shorfa constituted the overwhelming majority of Saharawis …. There were very few …haratin and abid." Tony Hodges, "The Western Sahara File," Third World Quarterly, vol. 6, January 1984, p. 77.

[279] Human Rights Watch interview with Justice Minister Hamada Selma, Rabouni camp, November 13, 2007.

[280] The definition is found in Article 1(1) of Slavery, Servitude, Forced Labour and Similar Institutions and Practices Convention of 1926 (Slavery Convention of 1926), 60 L.N.T.S. 253, entered into forceMarch 9, 1927.

[281] Human Rights Watch interview with Salem Ahmed Embarek, February 27 camp, November 12, 2007.

[282] Human Rights Watch interview with Halima Abbi Bilal, El-Ayoun camp, November 13, 2007.

[283]Human Rights Watch interview with Justice Minister Hamada Selma, Rabouni camp, November 13, 2007.

[284] See Appendix 4.

[285]Human Rights Watch interview with Halima Abbi Bilal, El-Ayoun camp, November 13, 2007.

[286]Human Rights Watch interview, February 27 camp, November 12, 2007. Human Rights Watch neglected to record the man's name.

[287]Human Rights Watch interview with Hamada Selma, Rabouni camp, November 13, 2007.

[288]Human Rights Watch interview with Salek ech-Cheikh Omar, El-Ayoun camp, November 13, 2007.

[289] Email communication to Human Rights Watch, February 18, 2008. The scholar asked to remain anonymous.

[290]Human Rights Watch telephone interview with Rosa Maria Sanchez, January 16, 2008.

[291]Tono Calleja, "Saltana no quiere ser esclava,"El País, March 12, 2007,, (accessed April 24, 2008).

[292] See Appendix 4.

[293] Human Rights Watch telephone interview with Rosa Maria Sanchez, January 16, 2008.

[294]Human Rights Watch telephone interview with Boubacar Messaoud, president of SOS Esclaves, April 24, 2008.  See also SOS Esclaves' two-page report on the case, signed by Messaoud and dated July 16, 2004.

[295] Audience Provincial de Murcia, Sección primera, Rollo Civil 499/2007, auto 52/2008.