See also:
» 05.03.2011 - Peaceful Western Sahara anti-government protests
» 28.02.2011 - Even Sahrawis plan pro-democracy protests
» 12.02.2011 - Saharawis at unease over Algeria, Morocco unrest
» 11.10.2010 - Sahrawis awake to government opposition
» 11.02.2010 - Morocco-Polisario revive talks
» 03.02.2010 - New talks on Western Sahara in US
» 18.12.2009 - Sahara activist allowed back home
» 11.12.2009 - UN chief intevening in Saharawi activist cause

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Western Sahara | Morocco
Politics | Human rights

Systematic maltreatments revealed in Saharawi camps

afrol News, 2 September - Systematic ill-treatment of Moroccan prisoners of war during decades has been revealed in the Sahrawi refugee camps in Algeria, run by the Polisario exile government. The discovery has made the pro-Sahrawi France Libertés-Fondation Danielle Mitterrand to immediately "stop its support for development projects" in the camps.

During a thorough international inquiry on the conditions of detention of the Moroccan prisoners of war held in Tindouf (Algeria), the French foundation - which supports Saharawi independence - was astonished to find systematic violations of the basic rights of hundreds of Moroccan prisoners of war, which have been held detained by Polisario for decades.

The Mission of Inquiry had met with about 700 prisoners and held 338 individual interviews. To the credit of Polisario, the Fondation could accomplish its work in total freedom, thus collecting open-hearted statements from the Moroccan prisoners.

The inquiry however established that torture, ill-treatment, malnourishment, forced labour and embezzlement of humanitarian aid has been the reality for Moroccan prisoners of war since the 1970s. Only after the Red Cross started its annual visits of the prisoners in 1994, the situation had improved slightly.

"Every prisoner" had experienced heavy torture - by Polisario and Algerian military personnel - at detention. The Fondation names several of the worst Sahrawi torturers known by their name. The inquiry however also documents that Polisario officials continued these torture practices after the 1991 ceasefire and made cover-up operations to hide this from the Red Cross delegations.

A large number of prisoners were reported to have died as a consequence of this torture, ill-treatment, excessive forced labour and the withholding of food. The inquiry found evidence of deaths following torture right up to year 2000, when "Aziz Mrachki" and "Youssef" had been killed by their Sahrawi torturers, according to prisoners.

Torture methods had and have included "whipping with an electric cable", being locked into containers without water or food, hanging upside-down, and heavy beating. Summary executions have also been widely practiced, the inquiry found.

Although torture had become less practiced during the last decade - it is not longer described as systematic - other types of ill-treatment were still ongoing. Beating of prisoners refusing to work or to weak to work remains common. On many occasions, they further had been "exhibited like animals in a zoo" to foreign visitors.

Also the housing, food, and clothing conditions remain below humane standards. Many prisoners have to dig their own trenches to sleep at night or sleep in containers. The two meals a day are without any "vegetal or animal protein intake". Health services were totally inadequate.

The French foundation further placed great emphasis on the continued practice of forced labour, which - although in general applicable on prisoners of war according to international law - had degenerated into slavery-like conditions. Most of the infrastructure in the camps had been built by the prisoners under inhumane conditions.

According to the interviewed prisoners, the extent of their work was systematically hidden from foreign visitors. Several examples of internationally financed projects - hospitals, etc - were named. These had been constructed by the prisoners while the official budgets and reports had mentioned paid Sahrawi workers. This also included projects financed by the Fondation.

Other alleged embezzlements of funds had also been mentioned by the Moroccan prisoners. According to the report, foreign humanitarian aid to the Sahrawi refugees or to the Moroccan prisoners was systematically stolen by officials, to be sold on Algerian, Mauritanian and Malian markets after being given a new wrapping.

- As far as France Libertés is concerned, as long as all the Moroccan [prisoners of war] are not released, we cannot envisage supporting in any way any project whatsoever in the Saharawi refugee camps, the Fondation said in its concluding remarks, reacting to the inquiry's findings.

Solidarity workers frustrated
The report, which in its French version was distributed to a selected audience already two weeks ago, naturally has caused great controversy among the international network supporting Sahrawi independence. While some fierce Polisario supporters automatically denounced France Libertés as belonging to "a French-Moroccan plot against the Sahrawi cause," most others reacted with shock and outrage.

The report actually denounces parts of the international pro-Sahara solidarity movement by implying their members had collaborated with Sahrawi torturers. Several prisoners of war had told France Libertés that Moroccans interviewed by these support organisations later had suffered retaliations from Polisario. The report on the other also shows how the real situation of the prisoners was hidden from foreign visitors, including solidarity workers.

Until now, France Libertés has been one of very few pro-Sahara groups publicly criticising Polisario for its continued holding and maltreatment of Moroccan prisoners of war. Another has been the Norwegian Support Committee for Western Sahara.

Ronny Hansen from the Norwegian Committee confirmed to afrol News that the French report had caused strong reactions in the international solidarity movement, among Sahrawis in the camps and in the occupied territory, as well as Polisario cadres. "Many in the movement however have great difficulties believing in the truthfulness of the report since it so totally contradicts the image they have formed so far," he adds.

- This issue is serious, not acceptable and cannot be ignored, said Mr Hansen. "We will discuss this with Polisario in the same way that we denounce human rights violations done by Moroccan authorities." The Norwegian Committee's coordinator does not hide his disappointment with Polisario, which he has been working closely with during years.

He says the Norwegian Committee for years has been lobbying the Polisario leadership for the release of all Moroccan prisoners of war, to no avail. Mr Hansen however adds that the reason for this lobbying had been a general humanitarian consideration and a need to respect international law on prisoners of war. He emphasises that the tales of torture and maltreatment in the French report were not known to him before and doubts they were known to other pro-Sahara solidarity workers.

- There should be no doubt about it; the prisoners must be set free as soon as possible, adds Mr Hansen. "That was clear already before the latest report and we have a basic confidence in France Libertés and their integrity. If only half of this report is true, it becomes very problematic for us to continue our cooperation with Polisario." He however emphasises Polisario first must get a chance to respond to the charges "before a final judgement is passed."

Meanwhile, the Committee would "remain cautious in dealing with them" [Polisario], adds Mr Hansen, emphasising that human rights issues always have been key to the Norwegian activists. The Committee has led successful pro-Sahara actions focusing on ethics. Further, he urges that France Libertés' demands are met - in particular that the accusation are properly investigated and that those guilty of torture or ill-treatments are punished.

Similar reactions have been registered in the Moroccan-occupied territory. Here, large numbers of Sahrawis have spent time or are still in Moroccan prisons for the sake of their opinions. An unknown number of Sahrawi prisoners of war are in Moroccan prisons - if they have not been executed - without any knowledge of their whereabouts for decades.

Prominent Sahrawi dissidents, who have spent years in inhumane conditions in Moroccan prisons, have expressed their shock over the France Libertés inquiry in the international press. They want their Moroccan "colleagues" in the camps set free and they do not want to be associated with Polisario if the methods described in the inquiry are found to be true.

Within the Polisario, however, the French report has found mixed reactions. Several officials downplay the report as French-Moroccan propaganda; Paris supports Morocco in the Western Sahara conflict. Others, respecting the well-known integrity of France Libertés, criticise the many alleged factual errors in the report and promise a thorough and sober answer when the document has been properly studied.

A growing group of younger Polisario officials however wants to find a permanent solution to the problem - the release of all prisoners of war from the camps. Most Sahrawis however are frustrated by the large attention given to the Moroccan prisoners while they themselves have lived in exile for an even longer time. The perception that this argument is only an excuse and that Polisario needs to demonstrate its respect of human rights is however spreading.

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