Updated: February 24, 2021
Human Rights Watch said on Friday that Morocco has been cracking down on pro-independence activists in Western Sahara following an incident at a border crossing on November 13, 2020, re-igniting the long-stalled conflict between Morocco and the Polisario Front, the Algeria-based independence movement for the territory.
The rights group said security forces broke up pro-independence demonstrations and harassed, beat up, arrested, or attacked the houses of several of the activists, adding that the recognition by the United States administration of Morocco’s sovereignty over Western Sahara on December 10 does not change its status in the United Nations system as a non-self-governing territory.
“Moroccan and Polisario troops may be facing off in border and diplomatic disputes, but that does not give Morocco license to crack down on Sahrawi civilians who peacefully oppose Moroccan rule,” said Eric Goldstein, acting Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch.
In late October, Sahrawi civilians blocked a road that connects Western Sahara and Mauritania through a 5-kilometer-wide buffer zone. On the Western Sahara side, Morocco has long maintained a border control, the Guerguerat crossing, that the Polisario considers a violation of the 1991 ceasefire agreement between the two parties.
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Moroccan troops on November 13 evicted the civilians from the buffer zone without inflicting casualties or making arrests. The Polisario held that this operation effectively ended the ceasefire and pledged to “resume the war.” No significant armed confrontation has occurred since then.
Moroccan authorities have long kept a strong lid on any manifestations of opposition to Moroccan rule in Western Sahara. They have prevented gatherings supporting Sahrawi self-determination, beat activists in their custody and on the streets, imprisoned and sentenced them in trials marred with due process violations including torture, impeded their freedom of movement, and followed them openly. Such tactics were reported again after the Guerguerat incident.
In El-Ayoun, after mostly peaceful Sahrawis demonstrated in support of the Polisario on the evening of November 13, Moroccan armed security force members and armored personnel carriers were deployed in several neighborhoods, establishing roadblocks and preventing pedestrians from circulating. The El-Ayoun branch of the Moroccan Association of Human Rights reported beatings with clubs and truncheons of peaceful passerby by Moroccan security forces, raids of seven homes of purported Polisario supporters by hooded policemen, and arrests of men, women, and children, accompanied by beatings, all in the few days following November 13.
Saharawi activist groups reported similar events at the same period in the cities of Smara, Dakhla, and Boujdour. The brutally suppressed pro-independence protests were overwhelmingly peaceful with limited instances of rock-throwing at the police, notably in El Ayoun. By contrast, the authorities allowed large demonstrations in Western Sahara on December 12 to celebrate the US recognition of Morocco’s sovereignty over the territory.
On November 16, policemen picked-up 12-year-old Hayat Diyya from her school in El-Ayoun and took her to a police station after a member of the school staff reported that she was wearing a military-style jacket, and had sewn a patch representing the Sahrawi flag on her school uniform. “The police kept her for five hours, slapping her, pulling her hair, and hitting her hard on different parts of her body,” Lahbiba Diyya, Hayat’s mother, told Human Rights Watch. “They also made her sit down on her knees and chant Morocco’s national anthem in front of a picture of the king. She has been having nightmares ever since.”
Sultana Khayya, a locally well-known activist from the city of Boujdour, told Human Rights Watch that police agents raided her family home on November 19, while she was out, and hit her 84-year-old mother on the head. She lost consciousness and was taken to a hospital in an ambulance. Khayya said that the police came back the next night, encircled the house, banged on the door with their clubs, and beat her sister Waara, 47, on the head with a metal truncheon, causing bleeding. Since that day and until at least December 3, when Human Rights Watch interviewed Khayya, the police remained outside the home, preventing family members from leaving and anyone outside, including family members, from entering.
On November 15, at 5 a.m., about 20 policemen in civilian clothes broke into a house in El-Ayoun, took Ahmed El Karkar, 19, who has a mental disability, from his bed and arrested him. He was later charged with erecting roadblocks and insulting and attacking a police officer during a confrontation between protesters and police forces in El-Ayoun on November 13.
El Karkar’s mother told Human Rights Watch that Ahmed was home during the confrontation. A court sentenced him to 10 months in prison on December 12. His lawyer told Human Rights Watch that the court rejected his request for a medical examination to prove his client’s mental disability. El Karkar is in El-Ayoune’s Lakhal prison, pending appeals.
A Sahrawi activist, Nezha Khalidi, told Human Rights Watch that on the afternoon of November 21, a few hours before her planned marriage ceremony to Ahmed Ettanji, an activist, police forces encircled and blockaded three houses belonging to family members of both fiancés, cut the electricity in one of them, and barred all occupants from leaving the houses, effectively preventing family members from gathering to celebrate the marriage.
The wedding was canceled, and the houses remained under police surveillance from then on, Khalidi told Human Rights Watch on December 10. She said that the attack was unprovoked, and the wedding was planned as a private family affair. Both Khalidi and Ettanji are part of Equipe Media, a collective of activists who use social media to circumvent Morocco’s censorship and document oppression. The authorities frequently harass the members.
Moroccan authorities systematically obstruct the work of groups that advocate self-determination in Western Sahara. On September 29, in response to the creation of the Sahrawi Organ against Moroccan Occupation, a new pro-independence group founded by a well-known activist, Aminatou Haidar, and others, a prosecutor in El-Ayoun announced a judicial investigation for “activities (aiming at) harming the kingdom’s territorial integrity.” The same day, police surrounded the house of six members of the new group, including Haidar. One of them told Human Rights Watch on October 5 that police cars had been following them whenever one of them left their house for any reason and had prevented guests from visiting.
Most of Western Sahara has been under Moroccan occupation since Spain, its former colonial administrator, withdrew in 1975. The government considers it Moroccan territory and rejects demands for a vote on self-determination that would include independence as an option. That option was included in the referendum that Morocco and the Polisario Front agreed to in a 1991 UN-brokered ceasefire agreement, but the referendum was never held. The United Nations does not recognize Morocco’s annexation of the Western Sahara, and stated that its position remains “unchanged” despite the US recognition of Morocco’s sovereignty over the territory.
Morocco has consistently rejected enlarging the mandate of the United Nations peacekeeping mission for Western Sahara to include human rights monitoring. Human Rights Watch has repeatedly called for expanding the mandate, which would bring the peacekeeping mission into conformity with nearly all other modern UN peacekeeping operations.
“Neither American recognition of Moroccan sovereignty nor Moroccan repression can take away the basic right of Sahrawis to oppose Moroccan rule peacefully,” Goldstein said.