(New York) - Morocco should end the delays in bringing three imprisoned Sahrawi activists to trial, Human Rights Watch said today. If the court is unable to proceed, it should release them from pretrial detention or drop the charges against them and their four co-defendants altogether, Human Rights Watch said.
On November 5, 2010, a Casablanca court adjourned their trial for another six weeks after a large contingent of pro-Moroccan spectators in and around the courtroom shouted slogans and assaulted Sahrawi activists and Spanish journalists.
"The Moroccan government has already punished these men with one year of pretrial detention and dubious extensions of their promised hearing," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. "This reinforces an impression that Morocco is in no hurry to give justice to these advocates of self-determination for Western Sahara."
Brahim Dahane, Ali Salem Tamek, and Ahmed Naciri have been held for 13 months. Their trial, on charges of "harming [Morocco's] internal security," started on October 15, but the court immediately postponed it because the authorities had failed to transport them from prison to the courtroom. The court postponed the trial again today after the public disruptions halted the proceedings before they got under way. The other four defendants in the case, Degja Lachgar, Yahdih Etarrouzi, Rachid Sghaier, and Saleh Lebaihi, face the same charge but are provisionally free.
The police arrested the six men and one woman on October 8, 2009, as soon as they returned from visiting the Sahrawi refugee camps in Tindouf, Algeria. Unlike previous low-profile family visits by Sahrawis from the disputed, Moroccan-controlled Western Sahara to the refugee camps, this delegation openly met there with officials of the Polisario, the Sahrawi independence movement that runs a government-in-exile and administers the camps. Four of the seven were provisionally released, one in January and three in May, but the three others remained in detention while a military court investigative judge examined charges that they had "undermined external state security." The judge finally sent the case back to a civilian court for them to face trial on a lesser charge.
Brahim Alansari, Human Rights Watch's observer at the trial today at the Casablanca Court of First Instance in Aïn Sbaâ, reported that before the session got under way, men and women wearing lawyers' black robes formed a large and imposing group at the entrance to the courtroom and occupied the front rows inside. They chanted slogans in favor of Morocco's claim over the Western Sahara; some carried Moroccan flags and a photo of King Mohammed VI.
At about 2 p.m., presiding Judge Hassan Jaber came in, the spectators rose, and the room grew quiet. When the judge called the defendants into the courtroom, they walked in chanting Sahrawi self-determination slogans. This prompted some supporters to raise their hands in the "V" sign, while other spectators began chanting pro-Moroccan slogans.
The shouting and tension escalated, without any apparent intervention by security forces to restore order. After about 20 minutes, Alansari said, the judge left the courtroom. Some of the spectators then punched and kicked known Sahrawi activists attending the trial, including Larbi Messaoud of the Collective of Sahrawi Human Rights Defenders (CODESA) and two Spanish journalists, Eduardo Marin of Cadena SER radio and Antonio Carreño of TVE television.
Later in the day, the court announced the postponement of the trial until December 17.
A Moroccan lawyer, Abdelaziz Nouaydi, who also attended the trial, told Human Rights Watch that following the disruption, some of the Sahrawi spectators refused to leave the courthouse, saying they feared for their safety. He and others negotiated their departure, but when they finally left the courthouse at about 6 p.m. they were surrounded and punched by people waiting nearby. Nouaydi said he saw uniformed policemen escorting at least some of the Sahrawis to safety. Nouaydi is a member of the advisory committee of Human Rights Watch's Middle East and North Africa division.
"Moroccan authorities have a duty to guarantee decorum in the courtroom to ensure a fair trial," Whitson said. "They should put a stop to these disruptions and resume the trial, not use these outbreaks as a reason to postpone justice."
It is not known whether authorities arrested or issued citations against any of those who disrupted today's proceedings and assaulted others.
Interviewed since their provisional release on May 18, defendants Etarrouzi and Sghaier said the case file showed no evidence to substantiate the charge but rather, consisted of broadcast and print media reports about the men being received by Polisario Front officials. The activists said in a statement on March 18 that their visit to Tindouf had been "for humanitarian and purely human rights reasons."
"Moroccan authorities seem to be grasping at excuses to postpone the day when they have to present their evidence against these defendants in an open court," Whitson said. "This case long ago reached the point where justice delayed became justice denied."
The defendants all advocate self-determination for Western Sahara, a vast disputed territory that Morocco has administered de facto since seizing control of it in 1975, after Spain, the colonial power, withdrew. The Polisario Front favors a popular vote on self-determination, including the option of full independence, while Morocco proposes a measure of autonomy for the region but rejects independence as an option. Morocco and the Polisario, which Algeria supports, have engaged in fitful and so-far fruitless negotiations.
Morocco considers peaceful advocacy of independence, or even of a referendum where independence is one option, as an attack on its "territorial integrity," punishable by law. Tamek, Dahane, Etarrouzi, Sghaier, and Naciri have all been previously imprisoned by Morocco - along with hundreds of other Sahrawis - for pro-independence activities. Dahane and Lachgar are both former victims of forcible disappearance.
After the seven were arrested on October 8, 2009, at Casablanca's Mohammed V airport, they spent eight days at the headquarters of the Judiciary Police in Casablanca, four of them blindfolded and handcuffed in individual cells, Sghaier and Etarrouzi said.
On January 28, Moroccan authorities provisionally released Lachgar, the only woman in the group, following reports that her health was poor. On March 18, the remaining six detainees started a hunger strike that lasted 41 days to protest their continuing detention without trial. On May 18, authorities provisionally released Etarrouzi and Lebaihi, both of El-Ayoun, and Sghaier, of Dakhla.
Tamek, Dahane, and Naciri remain in Salé Prison. All three are active in Sahrawi human rights organizations. Tamek, of El Ayoun, is vice-president of CODESA. Dahane, of El-Ayoun, is president of the Sahrawi Association of Victims of Grave Human Rights Violations (ASVDH). Naciri is vice-president of the Smara-based Committee for the Defense of Human Rights. Moroccan authorities have refused to grant legal recognition to CODESA and the ASVDH.
On November 6, 2009, in a speech on the anniversary of the Green March - commemorating Morocco's annexation of Western Sahara in 1975 - King Mohammed VI indicated a tougher line against Sahrawis who favor independence: "Let me clearly say there is no more room for ambiguity or deceit," he said. "Either a person is Moroccan, or is not.... One is either a patriot, or a traitor."