(Washington, DC) - Morocco's return of confiscated passports this week to activists living in Western Sahara and the renewal of others is a positive step, Human Rights Watch said today. The government should ensure that no one is prevented from traveling abroad because of his or her political beliefs, Human Rights Watch said.

Since August 2009, Moroccan authorities have turned back at the border or airports at least 13 Sahrawi activists without providing an explanation, confiscating passports from seven of them. In addition, at least four others who sought to renew their passports encountered unusual delays of months or longer.

"Morocco has taken an important step forward by returning and renewing these passports," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. "We look forward to the day when everyone under its authority can travel abroad freely regardless of the political views they express peacefully."

The activists recently subjected to the travel obstacles all openly favor a vote on self-determination for Western Sahara. They all oppose Morocco's official position, which is that the contested territory is an integral part of Morocco and its future cannot be subjected to a referendum in which full independence is an option.

Moroccan authorities tolerate little open dissent on this issue, considering calls for Sahrawi independence as potential violations of laws penalizing "attacks on [Morocco's] territorial integrity." At least some of these activists have, while abroad, criticized Morocco's de facto rule and pled the cause of self-determination for Western Sahara.

Human Rights Watch published a communiqué on the new wave of travel restrictions on January 26, 2010, with details of each case.

Since February 10, authorities have returned passports to five activists whose passports they confiscated on October 6, as the men sought to pass the border crossing into Mauritania. Those activists are: Sidi Mohamed Daddach, Larbi Messaoud, Brahim Sbaï, and Brahim Ismaïli, all of El-Ayoun, and Atik Brai, of Dakhla. Authorities also returned a passport to Sultana Khaya of Boujdour. They had confiscated it from her at el-Ayoun airport on October 18, 2009.

Three other activists who applied for passport renewals got their passports this week. They are Hmad Hammad, Ghalia Djimi, and Moustapha Dah.

According to information obtained by Human Rights Watch, authorities have yet to return Abderrahman Bougarfa's passport, which they confiscated as he prepared to travel to Spain on November 18. In addition, activists Brahim Sabbar and Bachir Lefkhaouni, whose passport applications have been pending for at least one year, are still awaiting the issuance of their documents. And three members of the Dakhla Committee against Torture, Oulad Cheikh Mahjoub, Babyte Abdati, and Mohamed Salem Aamar, told Human Rights Watch that they are all awaiting the delivery of new passports after submitting renewal applications in February 2008, October 2009, and December 2009, respectively. Others unknown to Human Rights Watch may be in similar situations.