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The Moroccan government must ensure fair trials for eight jailed human rights defenders from the Moroccan-controlled Western Sahara, Human Rights Watch said today. The trial of seven of them, who are facing dubious charges of fomenting and participating in violence, is set to resume on Tuesday in the territory’s main city, Laayoune.

In a letter sent to King Mohammed VI, Human Rights Watch said that the proceedings so far have shown that the defendants’ rights to a fair trial were at risk. Under Morocco’s constitution, the king serves as the president of the country’s judiciary.

“Evidence in the case files of these Western Saharan activists raises questions about whether they should have been prosecuted in the first place,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “The Moroccan government needs to ensure that these trials are fair, prompt and transparent.”

The Moroccan authorities are prosecuting the human rights activists, along with seven young men, on charges of inciting and participating in attacks on the police and public property during a wave of protests by members of the Sahrawi population in Laayoune and other cities since May. The demonstrations, in which protestors shouted slogans advocating independence for Western Sahara, were mostly peaceful. But on some occasions protestors threw rocks and Molotov cocktails at police, who repeatedly used arbitrary and excessive force against both demonstrators and innocent bystanders.

In June and July, Moroccan police arrested Aminatou Haidar, H’mad Hammad, Ali Salem Tamek, El-Houcine Lidri, Brahim Noumria, Larbi Messaoud and Mohamed El-Moutaouakil. In October, they arrested Brahim Dahane, who is expected to be tried separately. All eight had been collecting and disseminating information about human rights abuses committed by Moroccan authorities against Sahrawis. Dahane is president of the Sahrawi Association of Victims of Grave Human Rights Violations Committed by the Moroccan Authorities, an organization Moroccan authorities have thus far refused to recognize. El-Moutaouakil, Lidri, Messaoud, and Noumria belonged to the Sahara section of the Forum for Truth and Justice before a Moroccan court closed down that section in 2003.

The eight are also known for their peaceful advocacy of independence for Western Sahara. Six of them have been either previously convicted for nonviolent political activities or held for years in secret detention without trial, presumably for their opposition to continued Moroccan rule over the territory.

In the coming days, King Mohammed VI is reportedly planning to preside over a ceremony honoring Morocco’s Equity and Reconciliation Commission for its just-completed work documenting grave abuses committed in the country between 1956 and 1999, compensating victims, and recommending measures to prevent human rights abuses in the future. The Commission conducted research missions to the Western Sahara and met with victims of past abuses and with their survivors.

Moroccan authorities often make the claim that the Commission represents a major step toward consolidating respect for human rights in Morocco.

“The achievements of Morocco’s truth commission deserve recognition,” Whitson said. “But these arrests and trials demonstrate that repression is still the rule in Western Sahara.”

The Western Sahara was effectively annexed by Morocco after Spain withdrew from the zone it controlled (known as the Spanish Sahara) in 1976, and Mauritania withdrew from the remainder in 1979. A guerrilla war with the Polisario Front contesting Rabat's sovereignty ended in a 1991 ceasefire brokered by the United Nations. Since then, a U.N.-organized referendum to determine the final status of this disputed region has been repeatedly postponed.

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