Citing “lack of evidence,” Moroccan authorities closed an investigation into police abuse allegations made by two human rights defenders whose testimony the prosecutor refused to solicit, Human Rights Watch said today.

The two Sahrawi human rights advocates, Dahha Rahmouni and Brahim al-Ansari, say that, in December 2007, police in the city of El-Ayoun, in the Moroccan-controlled Western Sahara, arbitrarily arrested and beat them before releasing them without charge. Human Rights Watch is making public today the men’s formal complaints [Rahmouni's complaint, in Arabic and Ansari's complaint, in Arabic] and additional evidence indicating that authorities did not conduct a credible investigation into the incident before announcing the end of the probe on May 5.

“A real, impartial investigation would have included testimony from both the police officers accused of abuse and the rights advocates making the allegations,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “Instead, Moroccan authorities chose to hear only one side, showing they’re not impartial.”

Since submitting their complaints to the office of the prosecutor at the El-Ayoun Court of Appeals in January 2008, the only contact the two men have had from Moroccan authorities came on May 5, when police informed them that the prosecutor at the El-Ayoun Court of Appeals had closed the investigation into their complaints for “lack of evidence.”

Police made the men sign a one-page document to this effect, but refused their request for a copy.

Human Rights Watch’s release of correspondence and documentation related to the case shows that, from the start, Moroccan authorities sought to discredit the plaintiffs rather than arrive at the truth.

In an email sent to Human Rights Watch in February, authorities denied mistreating the two men and released them the same day. The email called the men “[pro-Polisario] separatists … seeking to inflame tensions and present the Kingdom as a ‘monster’ that has no respect for human rights.” The authorities maintained, falsely, that the men had filed no complaint with judicial authorities, “prov[ing] once again that they were seeking mainly to broadcast their claims to the rest of the world and misinform international public opinion.”

The authorities further claimed that police had sought to arrest Rahmouni on numerous counts, and that he belonged to an “unrecognized” association.

Human Rights Watch responded by furnishing Moroccan authorities with a copy of the formal complaints that the two men had lodged with the prosecutor on January 4, 2008; a document showing that Rahmouni had a clean judicial record; and a court decision [also in Arabic] showing that the organization to which he belonged, the Sahrawi Association of Victims of Grave Human Rights Violations Committed by the Moroccan State (ASVDH), had followed the proper procedures for obtaining legal status.

Human Rights Watch also provided the men’s detailed written testimony [Rahmouni's testimony, in French and Ansari's testimony, in French] of how police had subjected them to beatings and other mistreatment, including:

  • forcing them to sign against their will statements that they were prevented from reading;
  • questioning the two men about their peaceful activities in defense of human rights; and
  • threatening them if they did not cease these activities.

On March 21, 2008, Human Rights Watch sent the above-mentioned materials and a letter to the Moroccan authorities seeking clarifications in light of the apparent inaccuracies in their initial response. Human Rights Watch has yet to receive a response.

“We welcome a genuine dialogue with authorities on human rights concerns,” said Whitson. “But in this case, we received a cynical string of falsehoods, a response that indicates that the government will back up police abuses.”

Each year, scores, if not hundreds, of Sahrawi victims file formal complaints to local prosecutors alleging police violence in El-Ayoun and elsewhere in the contested Moroccan-controlled Western Sahara. Like the formal complaints filed by Rahmouni and Ansari, the authorities dismiss the overwhelming majority of these complaints without collecting evidence beyond the police’s own version of events. In most cases, authorities rarely follow up on complaints.

“Investigations that appear to be carried out in bad faith perpetuate impunity for police mistreatment of Sahrawi activists,” Whitson said. “If Morocco wants to be taken seriously on human rights reform, it must credibly investigate human rights violations in Western Sahara.”