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

UN slams Morocco on abuses in Western Sahara

afrol News, 5 October - A secret UN report lashes out against Morocco, saying that citizens in Western Sahara are denied basic human rights. Not only were they deprived of their rights to choose over independence, but there existed no freedom of expression or assembly for those advocating the UN-endorsed view. Advocators could face torture and unfair trials. But the UN report also doubted the exiled Saharawi government's position on democracy.

afrol News has obtained a copy of a document termed "not a public report," compiled last month by the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), investigating the human rights situation for the Saharawi people living in Moroccan-occupied Western Sahara and in Algerian refugee camps controlled by the exiled Polisario government. The report came as a reaction to the violent crack-down on demonstrations in El Aaiun and other towns in Western Sahara since May 2005, and could only be carried out "after several months of negotiations" with Morocco and Polisario.

According to testimonies of Saharawi activists who met with the UN delegation, "demonstrations started peacefully, but became violent after Moroccan police, auxiliary forces and the Groupes Urbaines de Sécurité (GUS) used excessive force to disperse protesters against demonstrators and bystanders, beating them with batons, injuring hundreds of protesters and arresting a significant number," the report says.

This violence had also "resulted in the death, on 30 October 2005, of Hambi Lembarki," who had been beaten to death with batons by police officers. "An initial autopsy indicated that his death was the result of injuries to the skull," the UN report says. The death of Mr Lembarki is among the few incidents that got a legal aftermath, as his father filed a complaint that has been investigated. Two police officers are awaiting trial for "unintentionally causing death" while on duty.

The UN report however points out that the Rabat Ministry of Justice has only recorded three cases where legal complaints against Moroccan officers have been made - Mr Lembarki's case being the only one truly investigated - while Saharawi activists talk about hundreds of cases, including torture. The report indicates that, while Moroccan law strictly forbids torture and excessive police violence - complaints from Saharawis were not taken seriously.

Moroccan authorities had told the UN delegation that "violence during the demonstrations - which were described as illegal ... - was provoked by the demonstrators and the police response was entirely justified." The UN delegation however did not accept this assessment, concluding that police "officers seemed to have used force in an indiscriminate and disproportionate manner," and that the demonstrations never should have been termed illegal in the beginning. It also found Saharawi torture allegations credible but not proven. afrol News however has seen photos documenting torture of Saharawi human rights activist.

The UN report also questions whether the 14 Saharawis convicted in January this year for their participation in the demonstrations had been given a fair trial. All claim their innocence, several say their "confessions" had been a response to torture and lawyers claim they were not allowed to bring forward witnesses. The President of the El Aaiun Appeal Court could not answer these allegations as "he was newly designated." Concerned about "serious deficiencies with regard to ensuring the right to a fair trial," the UN report deplored the unsatisfactory reply by authorities.

The UN delegation registered that the background for this situation was to be found in the limited "freedom of expression, assembly and association" in Western Sahara. Moroccan government officials on several occasions confirmed that these freedoms were limited for persons, associations, media and views in favour of a Western Sahara referendum over independence.

"Such limitations, especially in view of the internationally recognised right of the people of Western Sahara to self-determination," could not be interpreted as a UN-sanctioned restriction to freedom of expression, such as national security, public order or public health or morals, the report concludes.

The UN delegation could not document equally grave human rights abuses during its stay in the Saharawi refugee camps, under Polisario control. It reported violations of the refugees' economic, social and cultural rights, which it blamed on the camps' remoteness in the Algerian desert. It also questioned the Polisario's monopoly on power despite the Saharawi constitution, and was assured that this was a temporary state given by their exile, but that multi-party democracy would be introduced with the achievement of "full independence of Western Sahara."

The report clearly demonstrates scepticism about the seemingly good state of human rights under the Polisario regime. It noted that several mass events - meetings and demonstrations - had been staged by the Polisario, where large number of Saharawis met the delegates, expressing "only one view concerning the future of Western Sahara." All the organisations meeting the UN delegation had also belonged to Polisario. In the well staged visit, no dissident views came forth and earlier reported human rights abuses were flatly denied by all.

Surprised and sceptical about this united voice, the UN delegation reminded the Polisario government of its constitutional obligation to guarantee freedom of expression. Obviously, the delegation was alarmed, as it concluded that a "closer monitoring" of the human rights situation also in the camps "is indispensable." The UN expected there to be an opposition, as it is found in any other society.

afrol News has spoken to several sources in the camps and close co-operators of Polisario who say there is indeed a growing opposition to the government in the camps. Press freedom is not established, opponents are discriminated against and only associations willing to be a part of the Polisario movement are allowed to register, opposition sources in the camps say. Other sources tell about a power battle between democrats and hawks within Polisario, where democrats have agreed to lay low until independence. There is an obligation to demonstrate unity while the conflict goes on, these sources said.

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