Morocco: UN human rights expert decries “clampdown” on human rights defenders

GENEVA (1 July 2021) ohchr.org – Morocco must stop targeting human rights defenders and journalists standing up for human rights issues related to Western Sahara, and allow them to work without reprisals, Mary Lawlor, UN special rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, said today.

“I urge the Government of Morocco to cease targeting human rights defenders and journalists for their work, and to create an environment in which they can carry out such work without fear of retaliation,” she said.

Lawlor highlighted the cases of human rights defenders Naâma Asfari and Khatri Dadda, who have been detained since 2010 and 2019 respectively, and are serving sentences of 30 and 20 years.

“Not only do human rights defenders working on issues related to human rights in Morocco and Western Sahara continue to be wrongfully criminalised for their legitimate activities, they receive disproportionately long prison sentences and whilst imprisoned, they are subjected to cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment and torture,” said Lawlor.

Lawlor also spoke out against “the systematic and relentless targeting of human rights defenders in retaliation for exercising their rights to freedom of association and expression to promote human rights in Western Sahara.

Clamping down on individuals and organisations that work for human rights – including those who engage with the UN – “is abominable and hurts society as a whole,” she added.

Lawlor said she has received reports that human rights defenders working on issues related to human rights in Western Sahara have been subjected to “intimidation, harassment, death threats, criminalisation, physical and sexual assault, threats of rape and surveillance.” If these reports are confirmed,  “they amount to violations of international human rights law and standards, and fly in the face of the Moroccan Government’s commitment to the UN system as a whole.”

She highlighted the case of woman human rights defender Sultana Khaya and her family, who have been prevented since November 2020 from leaving their home in El Aaiún. Sultana Khaya is president of the League for the Defense of Human Rights and Protection of Natural Resources in Boujdour and works for women’s rights and the rights of self-determination in Western Sahara.

She has been repeatedly harassed by Moroccan authorities and lost an eye when attacked by a police officer in 2007. For the last seven months, police and security vehicles have blocked access to the house, preventing the family from leaving, and relatives have frequently been unable to deliver vital provisions. Any time she has tried to leave the house, Sultana Khaya has been threatened and physically attacked by officers.

In May, the house was raided by Moroccan authorities twice within 48 hours. During the second raid on 12 May, Sultana Khaya and her sister, woman human rights defender Luara Khaya, were reportedly both physically and sexually assaulted by masked officers, and their brother was physically assaulted. A contingent of law enforcement officials continues to be stationed outside the house, without any legal explanation for their presence.

Sultana and Luara Khaya are both members of the Saharawi Organ against the Moroccan Occupation (ISACOM), an organisation founded in September 2020 to advocate the right of non-violent self-determination for people in Western Sahara and to work for the release of Saharawi political prisoners.

Since it was founded, its members – including women human rights defenders Mina Baali and Salha Boutinguiza; Lahcen Dalil, Hassanna Abba, Hmad Hammad, Babuizid Muhammed Saaed Labhi, Salek Baber and Khalid Boufrayoua – have been attacked and even tortured, and an investigation has been opened against the organisation by the Public Prosecutor in El Aaiún.

Lawlor also expressed particular concern about the apparent use of violence and the threat of violence to prevent and obstruct women human rights defenders in their peaceful human rights activities.

Lawlor’s call was endorsed by Mr. Clément Nyaletsossi Voule, Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of associationMr. Morris Tidball-Binz, Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions andMs. Melissa Upreti (Chair), Ms. Dorothy Estrada-Tanck (Vice Chair), Ms. Elizabeth Broderick , Ms. Ivana Radačić, and Ms. Meskerem Geset Techane;Working Group on discrimination against women and girls.