Interview with Maitre Olfa Ouled, defense lawyer of Saharawi Prisoners of the Gdeim Izik Group in face of the Covid 19 pandemia

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PUSL.- Maître Olfa Ouled, a French lawyer based in Paris who represents 18 of the Saharawi political prisoners known as Gdeim Izik Group, since 2016 is especially worried in face of the Pandemic with the fate of her clients.

The case of the Gdeim Izik Group is an example of the multiple violations of law of the Moroccan authorities in the occupied territories of Western Sahara, where arbitrary detention is the rule and not the exception when applied to the Saharawi population and human rights activists.

This group of men were abducted, detained and tortured during the dismantlement of the Gdeim Izik Camp and in its aftermath.

After one military trial and a civil trial, 8 of them have life sentences and the other 11 have sentences that vary between 20 and 30 years.

In the briefing note issued on 16 March 2020 by Penal Reform International we can read: “While legitimate measures in times of such an emergency are needed to prevent further outbreaks of COVID-19 in prisons, authorities need to ensure human rights are respected. In such anxious times it is even more pertinent that people are not cut off from the outside world, they do not end up in solitary confinement, and most of all they have access to information and adequate healthcare provision – equal of that available in the community.”

– Maître Ouled are you particularly worried with these prisoners facing the Covid 19 pandemia and the detention conditions they endure?

The current pandemic raises fears of worsening the situation of all Saharawi political prisoners and namely the prisoners I represent. They have all health problems following the torture they endured and no access to doctors which put them at a greater risk regarding Covid 19.

United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet urged that “governments should release anyone detained without sufficient legal basis, including political prisoners and those detained simply for expressing critical or dissenting opinions.
Once released, these people should undergo a medical examination and measures should be taken to ensure that they receive the necessary care and follow-up, including medical follow-up.”
This request was also relayed by the Moroccan Prison Observatory which called for the prison administration to release prisoners of conscience and activists considered peaceful. A “glaring lack of infrastructure and medical personnel” can indeed lead to a wide dissemination of COVID-19 in Moroccan prisons.

The conditions in the Moroccan prisons where my clients are detained lack the most basic hygienic measures.

Prisons are overcrowded as the Moroccan Prison Observatory already underlined which according to the World Health organisation is a factor of risk also.

I believe that these prisoners should be released and given the necessary and adequate health care that has been denied to them since their arrest.

– Some of the Gdeim Izik Prisoners are in prolonged solitary confinement for several years now, does this aggravate the situation?

The placement in prolonged solitary confinement in the particular context of the Covid-19 constitutes an even more cruel treatment and raises fears of an immediate irreversible deterioration of the already frail health status of the prisoners.

The Moroccan authorities have a duty to protect the physical and mental health of the prisoners, as set out in the Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners (also known as the Nelson Mandela Rules).

We are facing two worrying situation in AitMelloul2 and Tiflet2. For several years my Clients are not allowed to exit more than one hour per day despite all the complaints presented by me and also the complaints presented by the families directly.

The prison administration implemented measures to curb the spread of COVID-19 while positive cases are discovered every day. The number of visitors is now limited to one per prisoner and each prisoner is entitled to a maximum of one visit per month. However, the detainees of Tiflet and Ait Melloul are still deprived from regular contact.

Indeed, the measures taken by Morocco in the context of the coronavirus pandemic have not benefited any of my clients. Calls of my Clients are still very irregular while the Covid 19 measures should allow them to call daily their families since they can not visit them.

Finally, in the prison context the feelings created by prolonged medical isolation as feelings of anger, fear, guilt, depression and suicidal thoughts and tendencies in patients, can be amplified. The Covid 19 will emphasize this feeling.

– Morocco released over 5000 thousand prisoners yet that are several prisons that have infections cases. Yesterday the Moroccan Penitentiaries Administration has denied that there are cases in Kenitra prison where several of your clients are detained.

I have been prevented from visiting my clients and in the current situation also the families are not able to visit them. Even before the Pandemic the visits were irregular, short and sometimes prevented by the prison administrations.

At this moment the administration has even stopped receiving complaints from the outside.

Hence, it is impossible to clearly know the health status of the Prisoners and relating to the Covid outbreak we are forced to rely on the official information.

– Maître Ouled could you please tell us in which stage of the judicial process this group is?

After the judgment of the civil court in 2017 it is necessary that the Moroccan Supreme Court confirms that the lack of evidence of the Military Trial was overcome in this civil court. The sentences of the first trial were put in question by the Supreme Court since they were only based on documents and evidences produced by the police. The Supreme Court than referred the case to the civil court to overcome this lack of evidence. The sentencing was in July 2017 but to the moment the Supreme Court did not issue its final opinion.

And above all, after 10 years, no official investigation on the torture they suffered has been opened. Since the medical expertise ordered by the court was not an official investigation and also lacked any independence (an official investigation would imply the register of the complaints by the Prosecuter).

– Besides the International action that you have and are still taking, did you also address the Moroccan authorities?

The process is not closed and I continued to represent my clients even if i am prevented from visiting them by the Moroccan authorities.

On a regular basis I address the Moroccan authorities on the various levels regarding the violations committed against my clients in the different prisons they are detained, regarding amongst other the health status, medical neglect, isolation and the right to pursue their studies.

The last complaint was sent to the Prosecutor of Inzegane and received on 25 February for torture and ill-treatement but to date I received no answer.

The Committee against Torture (Untied Nations) is also following the reprisals on the prisoners following the communications of my clients to this Committee.