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hrw.org.- Western Sahara

The United Nations-sponsored process of negotiations between Morocco and the Polisario Front, the liberation movement that seeks self-determination for Western Sahara, most of which is under de facto Moroccan control, remained stalled after the resignation in May 2019 of Horst Kohler, the envoy of the UN secretary-general. Kohler had not been replaced at time of writing. Morocco proposes for Western Sahara a measure of autonomy under Moroccan rule but rejects a referendum on independence, which the conflict parties agreed upon in the context of a UN-brokered ceasefire in 1991.

Moroccan authorities systematically prevent gatherings in the Western Sahara supporting Sahrawi self-determination, obstruct the work of some local human rights nongovernmental organizations, including by blocking their legal registration, and on occasion beat activists and journalists in their custody and on the streets.

On September 29, in response to the creation of the “Sahrawi Organ against Moroccan Occupation,” a new pro-independence group by well-known activist Aminatou Haidar and others, a prosecutor in El-Ayun published a communique announcing the opening of a judicial investigation for “activities (aiming at) harming the kingdom’s territorial integrity.” The same day, police surrounded the house of five 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 home and prevented guests from visiting.

Walid El Batal, a pro self-determination Sahrawi activist, remained in prison after an appeals court in El-Ayoun, Western Sahara’s largest city, sentenced him in October 2019 to two years for “rebellion” and insulting police officers. On February 25, authorities told Human Rights Watch that they opened an investigation following the publication on YouTube, nine months earlier, of a video showing police agents severely beating El Batal and one other person upon arrest. The content of that investigation was not made public at time of writing, even though authorities told Human Rights Watch that tribunals in Smara and El-Ayun have prosecuted or investigated six police agents for illegal use of violence, in relation to El Batal’s arrest. Human Rights Watch was not able to verify that information independently.

In 2020, 19 Sahrawi men remained in prison after they were convicted in unfair trials in 2013 and 2017 for the killing of 11 security force members, during clashes that erupted after authorities forcibly dismantled a large protest encampment in Gdeim Izik, Western Sahara, in 2010. Both courts relied almost entirely on their confessions to police to convict them, without seriously investigating claims that the defendants had signed their confessions under torture. The Cassation court, Morocco’s highest judicial instance, confirmed the appeals verdict on November 25.

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