Screenshot of a video showing policemen severely beating two activists in Smara, Western Sahara, on June 7, 2019.

© YouTube

(New York) – A video that appeared to capture a beating of two Western Sahara activists by the Moroccan police is authentic and should lead to a thorough investigation, Human Rights Watch said today. Human Rights Watch was recently able to authenticate the video of the June 7, 2019 events and confirm the details of the case.

The video shows policemen pulling the two activists out of a pickup truck and kicking and pummeling them with clubs. The video of the incident, which took place in Smara, Western Sahara, was recorded by an unidentified person and posted online the following day. During the 46-second video, the 2 beating victims appear to be unarmed and offering no resistance. Moroccan authorities said recently that the incident remains under investigation. No officers have yet been disciplined, to Human Rights Watch’s knowledge. The government should publish its findings and hold those responsible to account.

“To anyone who doubts that Moroccan police forces use disproportionate violence against activists in Western Sahara, watch this video,” said Eric Goldstein, acting Middle East and North Africa executive director at Human Rights Watch. “We look forward to the findings of the investigation the authorities promised.”

Most of the Western Sahara, a non-self-governing territory according to the United Nations, has been under Morocco's de facto control since the 1970s. The government considers it Moroccan territory and rejects demands for a vote on self-determination that would include independence as an option. The international community does not recognize Morocco’s de facto annexation.

Moroccan authorities restrict the rights of Sahrawis who openly advocate self-determination. The police systematically prevent them from holding political demonstrations and they risk arrest and prosecution on abusive charges and unfair trials.

The video shows more than a dozen policemen in civilian clothes, many coming in and out of police cars, arresting four people who, as several sources confirmed to Human Rights Watch, were in a Toyota pickup truck on their way to the home of Salah Labsir, a Sahrawi media activist, a few blocks away. They planned to celebrate his release after he served a four-year prison sentence. The police usually try to prevent or break up such gatherings.   

Human Rights Watch has information that the pickup truck had been taxiing guests to Labsir’s house that day, defying a police blockade. A second video filmed earlier in the day shows the same truck circumventing police barriers to drop passengers off near Labsir’s house. The video ends with a police officer appearing to hurl a stone at the person doing the filming.

Both videos were posted on Facebook and YouTube on June 7 and 8, respectively, on accounts linked to self-determination groups in Western Sahara. Human Rights Watch concluded that the videos indeed capture events that occurred in Smara on June 7, based on analysis of the videos and interviews with 1 of those arrested and their relatives, and 1 of the lawyers of 2 others.

A Moroccan court later convicted one of the beating victims arrested in the incident, Walid El Batal, a media activist on Western Sahara issues affiliated with the Smara News website, and sentenced him to two years in prison on the basis of an unrelated incident in 2018.

In a separate case, a court convicted the pickup truck’s driver, Salek Hammad, also known as Abdi, and sentenced him to five years in prison, also on unrelated charges. The second man seen being beaten in the video, Laghzal Yahdhih, and the fourth passenger, an unidentified woman, were released later that day and not charged.   

On November 8, two UN experts and the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention wrote a joint letter to Moroccan authorities requesting clarifications about El Batal’s imprisonment and the violence he had suffered.

On February 14, 2020, Morocco’s Mission to the UN in Geneva issued a six-page response, which Human Rights Watch has reviewed. It states that the vehicle carrying El Batal, Abdi, and Yahdhih rammed a police barrier before their arrest, damaging a police car and injuring police officers, and that El Batal had waved a knife to threaten the police.

Human Rights Watch was unable to reach any of the four Sahrawis arrested in the incident to respond to these allegations. However, even if they were true, the large group of police officers appear to have used force beyond what was necessary to effect an arrest and eliminate any danger to themselves or others. The UN Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials limits force to when it is “unavoidable” and then requires it to be “in proportion to the seriousness of the offence and the legitimate objective to be achieved.”

Moreover, responding to the UN inquiry into the failure of the court to investigate El Batal’s allegations that the police beat him upon arrest, as the video shows, Moroccan authorities stated that El Batal “never raised such allegations during his preliminary and substantive hearings.” In fact, the written judgments of both courts contain several mentions of El Batal’s allegations of police violence. The documents mention that Mohammed Lahbib Rguibi, El Batal’s lawyer, “provided some pictures confirming the violence to which his client was subjected.”

On February 19, Human Rights Watch wrote to the Moroccan Inter-Ministerial Delegation for Human Rights (DIDH) about the incident captured in the video and asked if the government had investigated it and taken any measures against the police officers involved. On February 25, the DIDH responded that “the competent prosecutor’s office” had opened an investigation prior to receipt of the inquiry and that the investigation was continuing.

The Moroccan authorities should publish the findings of the investigation. Moroccan authorities have in the past announced investigations of incidents in which human rights violations may have occurred but have not disclosed the investigations’ outcomes publicly.

Under the UN Convention on Torture or Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, which Morocco ratified in 2014, “any individual who alleges he has been subjected to torture in any territory under its jurisdiction has the right to complain to, and to have his case promptly and impartially examined by, its competent authorities.” The convention further requires states to “ensure that any statement which is established to have been made as a result of torture shall not be invoked as evidence in any proceedings, except against a person accused of torture as evidence that the statement was made.” Morocco’s Code of Penal Procedure contains a similar provision.

“Blocking a gathering of activists, beating those who try to access it, convicting people based on apparently tainted confessions while courts fail to investigate claims of torture captures many of the abuses faced by Sahrawis who openly oppose Moroccan rule,” Goldstein said. “The novelty is that some of it is documented on video, and that an official investigation is now under way.”

The Washington Post published its own investigation, including a detailed video analysis, into the same beating incident.

The Victims’ Accounts

Human Rights Watch interviewed Laghzal Yahdhih, who said he was the second man seen being dragged out through the truck’s window in one of the videos. He said that three police cars chased their pickup truck until one of them collided with it, forcing it to stop. The beating began seconds later, he said.

Yadhih said that about a dozen policemen in civilian clothes, many armed with batons, banged on the truck with their clubs and then – as the video shows – violently pulled El-Batal and then Yadhih through the truck’s open front passenger-side window, and punched, kicked, and hit them with the batons on various parts of their bodies. Yahdhih said he had bruises on his head, torso, and left shoulder.

Yahdhih said the police took the four people in the pickup truck to a police station where officers insulted, slapped, and punched them on various parts of their bodies, including while some of them were blindfolded and handcuffed to chairs.

Yahdhih said he lost consciousness and woke up in a local hospital alongside Abdi, the driver, who he says had also lost consciousness. After a doctor checked the men they were sent back to the police station where they were beaten again, photographed, and forced to sign and fingerprint statements without reading them, Yahdhih said. Police freed Yahdhih a couple of hours later and have not contacted him since.

Salek El Batal, Walid’s father, confirmed that the first man who appears in the video being dragged out of the front passenger-side window is his son. He said that he saw his son later that day in the hospital in Smara with bruises on his face, back, thighs, hands, and feet.

A court would later charge El Batal with “rebellion,” obstructing a public thoroughfare, and insulting police officers during a protest in Smara in March 2018, which took place 15 months before his arrest.

The beatings video briefly shows a policeman wrapping his arm around a man’s shoulders, apparently pulling him to a police car parked nearby. The man was identified as Abdi, the truck’s driver, by a relative, who asked to remain anonymous, out of fear of reprisal by Moroccan authorities. The same relative saw Abdi weeks after his arrest in El-Ayoun prison, and said he bore injury marks on his cheeks and hands and stitches on the back of his head that he said resulted from his beating by policemen while in their custody.

The last seconds of the video show the unidentified woman in a Sahrawi traditional dress being guided to another police car.

After arresting Walid El Batal on June 7, the police transferred him to a prison in El-Ayoun, Western Sahara, 200 kilometers west of Smara. The El-Ayoun First Instance Court charged him with “rebellion,” obstructing a public thoroughfare, and insulting police officers during a protest in Smara on March 27, 2018.

The written judgments in both El Batal’s first instance and appeals trials are extremely imprecise in the way that they refer to the dates and locations of his alleged offenses, making it difficult to determine if they all allegedly occurred on March 27, 2018 or if some of them are linked to his alleged “resistance to arrest” on June 7, 2019.

On October 9, 2019, the court convicted and sentenced him to six years in prison. On November 12, an appeals court reduced the sentence to 2 years. El Batal is in Bouizakarn prison in Morocco, 400 kilometers north of Smara.

Both his father and his lawyer, Rguibi, said that during both the first instance and appeals trials, El Batal told the court that the police had beaten him during the arrest and interrogation. Rguibi said he provided snapshots of the video to the court as evidence.

However, neither trial court opened an investigation into the alleged beatings nor discarded El Batal’s “confession” on the grounds that it could no longer be considered voluntary. The courts’ written judgments note Batal’s claims of being the victim of police violence but nevertheless rely heavily on his “confession” to justify their guilty verdict.

Video Analysis

Human Rights Watch reviewed the two videos posted on Facebook on June 7 and YouTube on June 8. By matching several distinct landmarks visible in the video with satellite imagery captured on July 2, 2019, Human Rights Watch confirmed that both videos were recorded in the city of Smara in Western Sahara. These findings are consistent with an analysis of the videos by the Human Rights Investigations Lab at the Human Rights Center at the University of California, Berkeley, which Human Rights Watch has reviewed. The date and location of the recordings are consistent with the witness evidence Human Rights Watch collected.

The 46-second video posted on YouTube on June 8 by a Western Sahara self-determination account showed policemen in civilian clothes violently pulling two Sahrawi men out of the front passenger-side window of a Toyota pickup truck and severely beating them. The scene occurred on June 7, said one of the victims whom Human Rights Watch interviewed. Court documents also confirm that two of the passengers of the truck were arrested the same day.

Human Rights Watch also reviewed a 1 minute 7 second-video posted on Facebook by Smara News, a Western Sahara self-determination web platform, on June 7 that showed the same vehicle earlier that day trying to evade police cordoning a house in Smara where celebrations were held to welcome Lebsir back from prison. Human Rights Watch identified the exact location where this video was filmed by matching the buildings and roads visible in the video with satellite imagery captured on July 2, 2019 and confirmed that the neighborhood is only a couple of blocks from the intersection where police intercepted the same vehicle later in the day and arrested its passengers.

The earlier video shows the truck circumventing a barrier by driving onto a sidewalk, making a U-turn through a dirt patch, then stopping next to a police van just long enough for three of its occupants to jump out and run toward an apparent gap in the barriers in front of Labsir’s house.

The truck then takes off and drives in a direction that appears closed by a barrier. Whether the truck rammed this barrier or damaged police vehicles and harmed personnel, as Moroccan authorities claim, is unclear and not shown in the video. The filming, done from the rooftop of the building, stops as a person in civilian clothes, believed to be a police agent, can be seen throwing a rock at the videographer.

Human Rights Watch reviewed a third video posted on Facebook by Equipe Media, a collective of Western Sahara self-determination media activists, on June 7. The 44-second video recorded the same event from a different angle, also showing the police blockade outside Lebsir’s house. This video was recorded from inside Lebsir’s house on the ground level and captures the truck pulling up to the house as well as the suspected police officer in civilian clothes throwing a rock at the videographer who was recording on the roof. 

Smara News, Equipe Media, and other local activist groups are key resources to share documentary videos of what is happening on the ground in Western Sahara at a time when non-Moroccan journalists face considerable obstacles to entering Western Sahara, and Morocco quasi-systematically refuses entry to the territory to foreign pro-Sahrawi activists.

Moroccan Law on Torture, Coerced Confessions

Morocco’s 2011 constitution includes a prohibition on abusive force and says that “torture, by any person and in whatever form, is a crime punished by the law.”

The Code of Penal Procedure prohibits courts from admitting into evidence statements obtained by the police if coercion or violence were used to obtain them. In practice, however, courts routinely admit into evidence contested “confessions” and base convictions on them without opening investigations into allegations of torture and other physical mistreatment.