Western Sahara & Morocco 
Saharawi leaders illegally arrested in Morocco

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Misanet.com / IPS, 26 April - Moroccan authorities detained two leaders of the Western Saharan peoples, known as Saharawi, to prevent them from testifying about abuses before the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, charged international humanitarian groups Wednesday.

The Moroccan police arrested Mahmoud Elhamed and Brahim Noumri at the airport in Casablanca as the two headed to Geneva, reported the International League for the Rights and Liberation of People (LIDLIP).

Elhamed and Noumri are members of the Truth and Justice Forum - Saharan office, a human rights organisation, and were en route to present a report before the UN commission on the violations attributed to Moroccan authorities when they were detained.

The kingdom of Morocco took over the territory of the Western Sahara by military force after Spain ended its colonial reign over the area in 1975.

The Truth and Justice Forum stated in Geneva that human rights abuses began to occur then against the local residents, perpetrated by the Moroccan military forces.

In that same period, armed hostilities erupted between the Rabat government and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Saguia el Hamra and Rio de Oro (Polisario Front), which demands self-determination for the Saharawi, the people of the Western Sahara.

The military occupation of the Western Sahara has prevented the Truth and Justice Forum from completing its investigative mission on human rights. The two men, who were arrested 24 March, carried with them proof of human rights abuses.

The Truth and Justice Forum's accusations were read Wednesday at the Geneva-based UN Commission on Human Rights by Saverino Maurutto, representative of LIDLIP's Swiss office.

The Moroccan police seized lists of the victims of human rights violations in the Western Sahara and a videotape of testimonies given by fugitive Saharawi leaders and by families of the disappeared.

Maurutto reported to the UN commission that the two Saharawi leaders arrested are currently under house arrest and prohibited from leaving the country.

Nevertheless, LIDLIP announced it would present copies of all the information gathered for the case to Hila Jilani, special rapporteur for human rights designated by UN secretary-general Kofi Annan.

As the UN Commission on Human Rights has done in every six-week annual session for the last 20 years, it approved a resolution two weeks ago in favour of the self-determination of the Saharawi.

The document calls for negotiating an accord between Rabat and the Polisario Front, and expresses support for holding a referendum on self-determination for the people of the Western Sahara, the territory disputed by Morocco and the Polisario.

Abba Salek Elhassan, secretary general of the Union of Saharawi Jurists, interpreted the UN commission's approval of the resolution as a "confirmation, once again, of the legitimacy of the Saharawi people's struggle."

The attorney maintains that the decision by the UN's maximum human rights forum also substantiates the support of the international community for the efforts of Annan and his special envoy for the Western Sahara, former US Secretary of State, James Baker III.

In 1991, the UN achieved an end to the armed clashes and promoted a peaceful way out through holding a referendum. But Morocco is now attempting to mobilise international opinion towards seeking an alternative to the UN plan, Elhassan said.

The process leading up to the referendum on self-determination is bogged down by Morocco's objection to the official list of voters, which was put together by the UN commission to identify the Saharawi and completed in January 2000.

The authorities in Rabat are pressing for the inclusion of 140,000 Moroccans as if they were Saharawi, complained the jurist, who attended the Commission on Human Rights sessions in Geneva.

The Saharawi population, estimated at 300,000 to 400,000 people, is distributed among settlements within the Western Saharan territory under Moroccan control, and in refugee camps in Algeria, 50 km from the border, home to some 220,000.

At the camps in Algeria, all the institutions, including schools and hospitals, are governed by the Saharawi Republic, officially recognised by the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) and by 62 nations.

In the disputed area of the Western Sahara, the majority of the population is Moroccan, made up of citizens, migrant farmers and military personnel, acknowledged Elhassan.

The land itself holds large deposits of phosphate, a mineral used in manufacturing fertiliser and fingered as the cause behind the international conflict over the Western Sahara.

Elhassan said Morocco has the support of the world's major political powers, particularly France, which "plays an important role in supporting Rabat in blocking the referendum."

With its veto power in the UN Security Council, France would prevent any resolution condemning Morocco and instead promote a different solution outside the scope of the UN's peace plan, according to political experts.

In addition to the African nations, Austria and Italy are backing the Polisario Front.

But Elhassan pointed out that Spain, despite its great responsibility to the Saharawi people it abandoned in 1975, is playing a harmful role - caving in to pressure from Morocco due to the fishing treaties between the two countries.

Following the depletion of fish populations in the North Atlantic, Spanish fishing vessels headed south, and many have ended up casting their nets off the Moroccan coast, protected in their endeavours by the bilateral fishing agreements.

The Spanish policy is also influenced by the question of Ceuta and Melilla, two cities still held by Spain on the northern Moroccan coast. Elhassan criticised Spain for not reacting to the Western Sahara case as Portugal did in its relations with former colony East Timor.

Portugal played an important role in the decolonisation of that South Pacific territory, which was subsequently occupied by Indonesia. But a UN-sponsored referendum in August 1999 on independence ultimately held sway - though the process involved a wave of devastating violence that required the UN to step in once again. 

By Gustavo Capdevila, IPS

IPS.

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