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Morocco: Sahrawi Activists, Detained 18 Months, Await Verdict

Trial Delays, Limited Evidence Raise Concerns of Politically Motivated Prosecution

(New York) - Three Western Sahara activists have been in pretrial detention for 18 months, with numerous delays in their trial, Human Rights Watch said today. Their trial on charges of "harming [Morocco's] internal security" has proceeded in fits and starts, with limited evidence produced against them. Four co-defendants are provisionally free.

The police arrested the six men and one woman on October 8, 2009, upon their return 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.

"The court trying the seven Sahrawi activists should without any further delay issue a verdict that properly presents the evidence and reasoning behind the verdict," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. 

The seven defendants were initially under investigation by a military court investigative judge on charges that they had "undermined external state security." The military court judge finally referred the case to a civilian court for them to face trial on the lesser charge of harming internal security.

Brahim Dahane, Ali Salem Tamek, and Ahmed Naciri remain in jail while Degja Lachgar, Yahdih Etarrouzi, Rachid Sghaier, and Saleh Lebaihi are provisionally free.

The trial began on October 15, 2010, a year after their arrest, but the First Instance Court of Aïn Sbaâ immediately postponed it because the authorities had failed to transport the three detained defendants from prison to the courtroom. The court postponed the trial on November 5 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 attending the session.

The hearings finally got under way on December 17 and continued on January 7 and 14, 2011. The judge said the court would announce its verdict on January 28. But instead, the court decided to summon two additional witnesses, Mohamed Elmoutaouakil and Aïcha Dahane.

The case revolved in part around accusations that while in Algeria the defendants had received money for unlawful purposes. Some of them acknowledged receiving money while in Algeria but said it was only a small amount to cover their travel expenses. Other defendants denied receiving money while in Algeria and said that Elmoutaouakil and Dahane had given them the money in their possession. Elmoutaouakil, a Sahrawi activist living in Casablanca, and Dahane, Brahim Dahane's sister, testified on March 4 and March 25 respectively. On March 28, the three detained defendants appeared again before the judge. No new date for the verdict has been announced.

The prosecution has sought to show that the meetings held by the defendants while in Algeria, and money they allegedly received from sources there, constituted offenses under Article 206 of the Penal Code. That article stipulates:

A person who directly or indirectly receives from a foreign person or organization, gifts, loans, or other advantages, in any form, that are used or intended to be used, in whole or in part, to carry out or to pay for an activity or for propaganda in Morocco that could harm the integrity, sovereignty, or the independence of the Kingdom, or to shake the loyalty that citizens owe the State and the institutions of the Moroccan people, shall be guilty of harming the internal security of the state and punished by imprisonment from one to five years and a fine of 1000 to 10,000 dirhams [US$125 to 1,250].

The activists said in a statement on March 18, 2010, that their visit to Tindouf had been "for humanitarian and purely human rights reasons." Etarrouzi and Sghaier told Human Rights Watch that the case file consisted only of broadcast and print media reports about the men being received by Polisario Front officials, and their own statements, in which they explained that their meetings in Algeria were to discuss political, humanitarian, and human rights issues.

Since the defendants' trip in 2009 several other delegations of Sahrawi activists from Morocco or Moroccan-controlled Western Sahara have traveled to the Polisario-run refugee camps and have returned to Western Sahara without facing any legal repercussions.

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, to be 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.

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 the Collective of Sahrawi Human Rights Defenders (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.

"The scant prosecution evidence and the inordinate delays in the trial while three defendants remain behind bars makes it that much more important for the court to hand down a prompt, fair, and well-reasoned verdict that does not penalize peaceful political activity," Whitson said.

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