Morocco/Western Sahara: Investigate brutal crackdown on Sahrawi protesters

amnesty.org.- The Moroccan authorities must impartially and effectively investigate the use of excessive force by the security forces against Sahrawi protesters in Laayoune who were celebrating Algeria’s football victory in the Africa Cup of Nations on 19 July, said Amnesty International today.

The organization has verified video footage and gathered witness testimony indicating that security forces, who were heavily present on the streets and in cafés during the football match, used excessive force, throwing rocks to disperse the crowds of demonstrators and sparking clashes. According to two eyewitnesses, Sabah Njourni a 24-year-old woman, was killed after she was mowed down by two Moroccan auxiliary force cars.

“There is clear evidence to suggest that the Moroccan security forces’ initial response to the Sahrawi protests, which began peacefully, was excessive, and provoked violent clashes which could and should have been avoided. The authorities must impartially and effectively investigate the attacks on protesters and bring to justice anyone suspected to be responsible in fair trials,” said Magdalena Mughrabi, Deputy Middle East and North Africa Director at Amnesty International.

The clashes between Sahrawi protesters and Moroccan security forces broke out shortly after Sahrawis took to the streets in Laayoune waving Algerian and Sahrawi flags, chanting slogans celebrating Algeria’s football victory and calling for the Sahrawi people’s self-determination. Witness testimony and video footage indicate Moroccan security forces intervened by throwing stones, using rubber bullets, and spraying tear gas and water to disperse the demonstrators. The protesters responded by throwing rocks back at police.

An official statement from local authorities in Laaoyoune stated that a group “driven by hostile elements” took advantage of the celebrations to carry out vandalism and looting and that security forces were forced to intervene to protect private and public property. It also stated that a bank was set on fire and that dozens of members of the security forces were injured, with four in a critical condition.

According to activists, scores of Sahrawi protesters, football fans and bystanders are believed to have been injured. Some stated that at up to 80 people may have been injured but the exact number remains unclear as many did not go to hospital for treatment fearing reprisals.

In a video analysed by Amnesty International, one security officer raises his arms in a “Weaver stance,” a standard body position adopted by police officers to brace to discharge their firearm, and appears to fire his hand gun at the crowd. The UN Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials, state that  security forces must exhaust all non-violent means before resorting to force. These principles also stipulate that the authorities exercise restraint and only resort to use of firearms to protect against the imminent threat of death or serious injury.

Eyewitnesses also said Moroccan auxiliary forces began chasing supporters with police vehicles and knocked at least three people over, according to one testimony.  At least two people who witnessed Sabah Njourni’s death said she was struck by two auxiliary force vehicles which sped up towards her and did not stop to save her or check on her conditions. Satellite imagery analysed by Amnesty International and cross-referenced to videos filmed at the moment she was hit by security vehicles show she was on or close to a pedestrian crossing.

“The killing of Sabah Njourni appears to be the direct result of the police’s lack of restraint. It is vital that the investigation Moroccan authorities have announced into her death is thorough, impartial and effective and that its findings are made public. Any members of the security forces found to be responsible for her death must be brought to justice,” said Magdalena Mughrabi.

One of the two eyewitnesses, a Sahrawi activist, who did not want to be identified for security reasons recounted the moment that Sabah Njourni was hit by security forces’ cars:

“If they wanted to slow down they could have, the street was empty,” the activist said. “The girl was running from another street, she was on the zebra crossing, but these two cars from the auxiliary forces were driving at a crazy speed – it’s a residential area so they shouldn’t be driving so fast.”

The activist described how the first car hit Sabah Njourni, throwing her in the air and the second car ran her over again. Sabah Njourni died of her injuries shortly after arriving at the hospital. The activist also said another protester who had been hit by a car had not visited the hospital for fear of reprisals by the authorities.

Another activist told Amnesty International they had witnessed a separate incident where an auxiliary forces car hit a Sahrawi protester who was seriously injured with a broken leg and shoulder. The victim did not want to be identified for fear of reprisals.

A third eyewitness described to Amnesty International how he had himself nearly been hit by a police car that was zigzagging and speeding towards him. He also said auxiliary forces cars were driving on the pavements and against the direction of traffic in an attempt to intimidate and harass people.

According to activists, at least 13 people were arrested during the protests – nine adults and four children aged between 14 and 17. The nine adults have been charged with vandalism, use of force, obstructing traffic on a public road, harassment, and insulting the authorities as well as premeditated bloodshed. The four children will face trial in September.

The Moroccan authorities, which administer Western Sahara, continue to impose arbitrary restrictions on the rights of Sahrawis to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and association. Moroccan security forces have used excessive force to disperse peaceful demonstrations and Sahrawi activists have faced harassment, intimidation and prosecution solely for peacefully expressing their opinions and exercising their other human rights.

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