The ERC faces special difficulties in carrying out its work in the Western Sahara, owing both to operational challenges and the polarized atmosphere in the region. It must also contend with the officially encouraged chauvinism inside Morocco toward the region, reflected in laws punishing speech that questions the Moroccan-ness of the region.65
As noted above, the public hearing of the ERC scheduled for El-Ayoun, in the Western Sahara, was the only one to be cancelled. Although to Human Rights Watchs knowledge no official reason was given for the cancellation, commissioners told us that it was due to the tense political climate in the region following the violent disturbances in May. One result is that the events in this region are underrepresented overall in the ERCs public hearings. According to statistics furnished by the ERC on its website, events related to the Western Sahara conflict accounted for only 2 percent of the events described by the witnesses in the seven public hearings.
Until the U.N. brokered a ceasefire in 1990, Morocco fought a fifteen-year low-intensity war with the Frente Popular de Liberación de Saguía el Hamra y Río de Oro, more commonly known as the Polisario. The Polisario seeks independence for the Western Sahara, a region that the U.N. classifies as a non-self-governing territory and that remains under effective Moroccan control. The ceasefire was supposed to lead to a U.N.-organized referendum in the region to choose between on whether to accept Moroccan sovereignty and independence. However, Morocco has used a dispute over the list of eligible voters to keep the referendum plan from moving forward, while proposing regional autonomy within Morocco as an alternative to the referendum.
During the period of armed conflict, Moroccan security forces carried out hundreds of forced disappearances in the Western Sahara and arrested hundreds of others and sentenced them to long prison terms after unfair trials. Although the repression eased after 1990 and in 1991 King Hassan II released some 270 of the disappeared Sahrawis, security police maintain a tighter control in this region than elsewhere. The continuing repression and political tensions in the region complicate the task of the ERC.
State authorities have restricted independent human rights activities in the region. In June 2003, a court ordered the dissolution of the local branch of the Moroccan Forum for Truth and Equity, on the grounds that it was carrying out separatist and illegal activities. The Forum is a national organization representing victims of past abuse that has been active in following the work of the ERC. A local group, the Sahrawi Association for Victims of Human Rights Violations Perpetrated by the Moroccan State in the Western Sahara, has encountered numerous obstacles in its recent efforts to obtain legal status. The Moroccan Human Rights Association received authorization to operate a section in the city of El-Ayoun in 2005, but after nearly two years of delays.
Local residents may hesitate to step forward to talk about the abuse they suffered in the past, fearing reprisals from authorities. They may hesitate also because of a feeling of distrust toward Moroccan state institutions, or because of political pressure from separatists to put the national cause ahead of individual cases. There is also the fact that a large portion of the Sahrawi population has been living in refugee camps in Tindouf, Algeria since the 1970s, complicating the task of the ERC to solicit their participation in its work.
No one disputes that Moroccan forces disappeared Sahrawis during the 1970s and 1980s, but the number of cases is a matter of contention. Over the years, a number of human rights organizations and NGOs sympathetic to the cause of Sahrawi self-determination have prepared and circulated lists of as many as 1,500 Sahrawis deemed to have disappeared at the hands of Moroccan authorities.
ERC President Benzekri said the ERC cross-checked all the lists it had obtained of Sahrawi disappeared, reviewed relevant army and gendarmerie archives, dispatched researchers to the Western Sahara, interviewed relatives of missing persons, consulted with the U.N. Working Group on Enforced and Involuntary Disappearances and with the International Committee of the Red Cross, and obtained through ICRC auspices information from Sahrawis formerly in Moroccan custody and now living in the Tindouf camps. Benzekri maintained that this research enabled the ERC to clarify numerous cases, even if there are a lot still to be explained. He has also said that the number of persons disappeared and still missing from all regions of Morocco totaled about 260, indicating that he considers the number of confirmed cases of disappeared Sahrawis to be far lower than most of the estimates put forward by NGOs. Benzekri said that some of the NGO lists included persons for whom there is no available evidence that they had ever been taken into custody by Moroccan forces. He explained that these might include Polisario fighters who were killed by Moroccan forces but whose bodies were either never recovered or were buried without the next-of-kin being informed.
As for other categories of human rights violations in the Western Sahara, Benzekri said the ERC had to determine in which situations international humanitarian law applied. That legal regime gives armies a certain latitude in its dealings with the civilian population. For example, if the Moroccan army removed a civilian population from a zone of conflict, it would be necessary for the ERC to determine whether the Moroccan army carried out these relocations according to the applicable rules, said Benzekri.
Ultimately, the ERC must demonstrate that it treated individual cases and the broader history of repression in the Western Sahara in a manner consistent with its handling of victims and repression elsewhere.
A recent indication of this intolerance toward challenges to the official discourse is the sentence imposed on journalist `Ali Mrabet for characterizing the Sahwawis in Tindouf as refugees rather than as a population being held against its will by the Polisario. See above, in section III of this report.