(Rabat) – The failure of Moroccan authorities to follow through on investigating the beating by police of a Human Rights Watch research assistant is a case study of impunity for police violence.
On November 8, 2010, Moroccan police in the city of El-Ayoun, Western Sahara, pulled aside Brahim Elansari and beat him in plain sight of an American journalist. In the 18 months since the beating, Moroccan authorities have provided neither Elansari nor Human Rights Watch with any information about the progress of any investigation, despite written requests from Human Rights Watch.
“If there is impunity for police who beat up a citizen who works for an international organization in broad daylight, in front of witnesses and despite formal complaints, it’s clear how vulnerable ordinary citizens are,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch.
On November 22, 2010, Human Rights Watch wrote to the Interior Ministry, providing evidence about the beating from Elansari and the journalist who witnessed the beating, and requesting an investigation. The ministry responded two days later with a written pledge to conduct an investigation and to inform Human Rights Watch of the results. On December 22, 2010, Elansari himself filed a written complaint about the beating with the Office of the Prosecutor in El-Ayoun, requesting an investigation.
In the November 22, 2010 letter from Human Rights Watch, both Elansari and the journalist John Thorne, who was based in Rabat at the time for the Abu Dhabi-based daily The National, provided detailed accounts of the attack. A group of policemen surrounded Elansari on a downtown street and beat, slapped, kicked, and insulted him, calling him a “traitor” and a “separatist,” both said. Elansari is of Sahrawi origin and had previously been affiliated with Sahrawi human rights organizations in El-Ayoun. The authorities consider these associations to be hostile to Morocco’s rule over the disputed territory and sympathetic to calls for self-determination or independence for Western Sahara.
Elansari’s and Thorne’s accounts, as communicated to the government, are below.
On November 24, 2010, Mohamed Ouezgane, the director of the Regulations and Public Liberties department at the Interior Ministry, replied by e-mail, saying: “The minister of interior has ordered an administrative investigation into this case. In addition … the justice minister … has instructed the general prosecutor at the El-Ayoun court to open a judicial investigation…. The Moroccan authorities remain ready to handle all allegations that you receive and to respond to them with the necessary promptness.”
Elansari heard nothing until April 4, 2011, when he received a call from a judicial police officer asking him to come to the security prefecture of El-Ayoun the following day. Elansari went and gave an oral statement about the beating, then reviewed and signed a written version of it. The police told Elansari they would submit the statement to the prosecutor, who would inform Elansari of the next steps.
On November 23, 2011, having received no further information, Human Rights Watch wrote again to the Interior Ministry, asking about the results of the investigation. Receiving no response, Human Rights Watch wrote on February 7, 2012, to the Interministerial Delegation for Human Rights, recounting the details of the case and requesting a reply. None was received. The Interministerial Delegation is a government body created by decree in April 2011. Its responsibilities include coordinating government responses to inquiries and requests from international human rights organizations.
On April 20, 2012, Elansari phoned the prosecutor’s office in El-Ayoun and was told that the office had submitted a response to the Justice Ministry after receiving the request from Human Rights Watch to investigate the beating. However, 18 months after Elansari filed the complaint and a year after he provided his testimony to the police, no official has informed Elansari of the status or findings of any investigation.
Before Elansari worked for Human Rights Watch, the police in El-Ayoun had detained him and a friend from December 14 to 16, 2007, beat them while they were in custody, and then released them without charge. At that time, Elansari was a member of the El-Ayoun chapter of the Moroccan Association for Human Rights and of Annahj Addimocrati, the only legal political party in Morocco that advocates self-determination for Western Sahara.
The two men filed formal complaints with the prosecutor, and Human Rights Watch wrote to urge an investigation. The two men heard nothing from Moroccan authorities until five months later, when police informed them that the prosecutor had closed the investigation into their complaints for “lack of evidence.”
In an email sent to Human Rights Watch in February 2008, authorities denied that the police had abused the two men. Authorities instead denounced the complainants as “[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.
Human Rights Watch’s December 2008 report on human rights in Western Sahara found a pattern of police beatings of Sahrawi activists and demonstrators who favor self-determination for that disputed territory, and also a pattern of dismissals of citizen complaints of police violence accompanied by official efforts to discredit the complainants’ motives. In preparing that report, Human Rights Watch submitted information to Moroccan authorities about several cases in which Sahrawis – many of whom opposed Moroccan rule over the disputed territory – had filed complaints with the prosecutor’s office in El-Ayoun.
Authorities provided responses in seven of the cases. Except for one that was “still pending,” the authorities said they had closed all the complaint files “for lack of evidence.” In most of the cases they also derided the complainant’s motives with comments such as, “The complaint is baseless and aims at impeding the police from confronting those who seek to disrupt public order.”
When Human Rights Watch later contacted the complainants whose cases had been closed, all said that no authority had ever contacted them to take their testimony about the complaints they filed – a pattern that suggests the lack of political will to investigate impartially allegations of police violence. In some cases authorities claimed they had never received the complaint, although some of these victims showed Human Rights Watch copies of their complaints stamped “received” by the prosecutor’s office.
“As long as citizen complaints are swept under the rug, the problem of police violence against people in El-Ayoun – and elsewhere – will continue,” Whitson said. “Morocco needs an impartial, interactive, and prompt process in place for investigating complaints of police violence.”
Below are the accounts of Brahim Elansari and the journalist John Thorne, as provided to the government of Morocco in its letter of November 22, 2010:
From Brahim Elansari:
At 7:30 a.m., as I was walking along Smara Avenue, I learned that a huge number of people were marching from the eastern part of the city toward the Maâtallah neighborhood. There was a heavy presence of various security forces: the Auxiliary Forces, the GIR [Groupe d'intervention rapide], plainclothes policemen, and police wearing uniforms.
I observed demonstrators throwing stones on the police cars. Cafés and shops ... were closed along Smara Avenue. I heard guns firing – I think they were tear gas canisters….There were police cars, GIR and auxiliary forces everywhere.
[American journalist] John Thorne joined me at Mekka Avenue near the Hotel Jodessa. At about 9 a.m., when we saw policemen approaching us we headed away from the avenue and onto a street behind the Negjir Hotel, close to al-Morabitin school. But a uniformed, armed policeman came towards us. He searched John a little and then turned to me, insulting me and threatening me. Then other police came.
Mr. Thorne and I tried to retreat but the police stopped us and then started kicking, slapping and beating me with batons. They took me near their cars parked close to the Hotel Negjir, where other policemen joined them in beating me and insulting me and calling me “a traitor” and “a separatist.” Then other policemen escorted John toward me.
An officer in plainclothes came and asked us our names and what we were doing there. When I told him my name, he exclaimed, “So it's you, Alansari.” I told him that I work for Human Rights Watch. They asked me to provide a document proving that. I said I had no such document on me but gave them my national ID. Mr. Thorne showed them his press card and passport. Various policemen came, insulted me, and went away. The armed, uniformed officer who had first stopped us near al-Morabitin school returned and said he would shoot me.
The policemen then took my phone and searched it. When they found text messages from Mohamed Ali Ndour, a Sahrawi activist, they commented that I was in touch with “separatists.”
Then they took John somewhere and the other policemen surrounded me and started to kick me and beat me with their sticks and slap me. They asked me my nationality. When I refused to answer, they seemed angered and started to beat me again. Then a higher-ranking officer arrived and ordered me to reply. I said that I cannot talk while being beaten. He did not order the others to stop hitting me.
During this time I was able to hear some agents in uniform telling the others to stop beating me. But those doing the beating told them to leave if they didn’t want to take part in it. Then the higher-ranking officer came again and asked them to stop beating me.
One of the police escorted me to where Mr. Thorne was seated, in a chair. The policeman forced me to sit on the ground next to John, saying that I am a dog and that was my place. After about 10 or 20 minutes some policemen approached and told Mr. Thorne to return to his hotel and not to do any work.
The officer in uniform came with my phone in his hands and told John that he [Brahim] is an extremist and that he receives phone calls from abroad. The policeman in plainclothes who was talking to Mr. Thorne told the uniformed officer that the phone belonged to me. Then the man in plainclothes asked me not to accompany Mr. Thorne or to take him anywhere and that I should instead go home and stay out of trouble. They returned my phone and ID and gave John his passport, and we both left.
John Thorne, correspondent for the Abu Dhabi based English language daily The National, gave the following account:
Around 9 a.m. on November 8, 2010, Brahim Alansari and I went to Place Dchira, in central El-Ayoun, where dozens of policemen and several police vehicles were assembled. At that moment, several more van-loads of police arrived. For reasons I could not discern, police started chasing onlookers.
Mr. Alansari and I ran into a side street. Two policemen caught up to me and apprehended me. I did not see how they caught Mr. Alansari.
Both of us were taken to the edge of Place Dchira, where police were massed, and ordered to sit down. A police officer arrived. He recorded my passport and press card information, and Mr. Alansari’s identity card information. We both identified ourselves and our employers.
I explained that I am accredited by the Communication Ministry as a foreign correspondent in Morocco.
Then the police ordered me to stand, marched me about 15 feet away, and ordered me to sit in a chair. Meanwhile, around a dozen police – some in green jumpsuits, others in blue riot gear – surrounded Mr. Alansari and began beating him.
I could not see how many policemen struck Mr. Alansari. I could see that he was struck with hands and batons at least twenty times during a few minutes. Then the police made Brahim sit next to me.
At this point, two plainclothes policemen took charge of the situation.
After about an hour had passed since Mr. Alansari and I were stopped, the plainclothes policemen told us we could both go. They ordered Brahim to go in one direction and me to go in another. We both left in accordance with their instructions.