Printer-friendly versionSend by emailPDF version

© KonstantinaThe latest trial has yet again stunned the world with regard to Morocco’s persistent audacity to blatantly defy international law, digging itself deeper into a geo-politically embarrassing legal ditch of its own making.

Time and time again Morocco has the farcical ability to make extraordinarily maladroit decisions when it comes to its most sensitive issue, its illegal military occupation of Western Sahara. As we publish our second Pambazuka Special Issue on Western Sahara, 24 Sahrāwī human rights activists from the Moroccan Occupied Territory have been convicted by a military court in Rabat. The trial took nine days from the 8 to 17 February with delays and postponements since October 2012. (See video: Members of European Parliament (MEPs) hold 27 February press conference condemning Morocco's military tribunal. Two MEPs were observers at the tribunal.)

However much Moroccan state media projects the Saharāwī as ‘threatening the state’ or of Algeria ‘destabilising the region’, Morocco is the North African neighbour from hell. There is one very simple and unequivocal fact – Morocco has and continues to contravene our most fundamental international laws, especially with regard to our Western concept of ‘sovereign territory’, and our Geneva Conventions on human rights. It is, to use very simple English, time for Morocco to move back inside its own sovereign borders.

We featured the prison diary poems of one of the convicted human rights advocates, Enaama Asfari, in our first special issue for Pambazuka in October 2011 . His French wife Claude Mangin kindly passed them to us at the time and expressed her positive hopes for his freedom. Now she is faced with a different outcome – Enaama has been in unlawful detention since our 2011 special issue, and is one member of the group that has been given a 30-year sentence.

Immediately after the military tribunal’s verdicts on 17 February, international lobby groups began speaking out against the trial outcome with letters and emails, press releases and media articles: from Western Sahara Resource Watch calling these ‘shockingly tough sentences’ to Amnesty International’s call for Morocco to ‘use civilian courts to give fair re-trials’. In the UK, the Guardian newspaper printed the response from Jeremy Corbyn, chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Western Sahara and six British Members of Parliament, co-signed by 13 campaign groups as well as film director Ken Loach and journalist John Pilger. [1] Just prior to this trial, Human Rights Watch had released its 2013 report criticising Morocco’s own domestic human rights abuses. [2]

Arrested because of their involvement in the November-December 2010 Gdeim Izik protest camp, 8 of the defendants have been given life imprisonment, 14 given sentences ranging from 20 to 30 years, and two have been sentenced to two years.

These human rights activists along with their Sahrāwī peers have been using their human right to freedom of speech to protest against Morocco’s military invasion and occupation, and to openly voice their demands for self-determination for an independent Western Sahara. Gdeim Izik was called a ‘peace camp’ set up by the Sahrāwī and instrumental in communicating to the watching world their continual social discrimination and economic marginalisation by Morocco’s military occupation. What did Morocco do? It engaged in a brutal dawn raid that was filmed on mobile phones and uploaded to the internet for us all to see. Readers can see a short documentary filmed by two Spanish human rights observers from ‘Sahara Thawra’ who secretly lived inside Gdeim Izik, and were later hunted by Moroccan security forces. This first video trailer shows the peace camps, while these next two videos show the brutal dawn raid by Moroccan security forces and

One of those receiving a life sentence is Sidahmed Lemjiyed, the President of the Saharawi Committee for the Protection of Natural Resources, who appears as the third from the right in the above picture. [3] [see photo Konstantina 1"> European observers who regularly attempt to enter the Moroccan Occupied Territory to witness previous Moroccan trials of Sahrāwī have long been communicating their monitoring concerns. In this 2013 military trial, these observers have identified the same anomalies occurring, from the delay of detentions without trial beyond the legal limit of 12 months, that the trial of these civilians has occurred in a military court, indications that confessions were obtained under torture, and that confessional signatures were ‘proven’ with only thumb prints.

Just prior to the trial, the European Parliament had called for the release of the prisoners. [4] When news broke of the excessive sentencing on the 17 February, Erik Hagen of Western Sahara Resource Watch said: ‘The international community must wake up to the injustice committed to Saharawis who’ve done nothing more than call for their legitimate rights’; while Ann Harrison, Amnesty International's Deputy Director for the Middle East and North Africa said: ‘It is disturbing that the authorities have also ignored the Sahrawi defendants’ allegations of torture and coerced confessions’. [5]

More than 20 of the Sahrawi activists have been illegally detained without bail in Rabat’s Salé prison for the two years since the November 2010 brutal dawn raid on Gdeim Izik by Moroccan security forces. Since the first trial date set in October 2012, independent international observers such as Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Network’s (EMHRN) expressed their frustration at Moroccan authorities delaying the court martial three times.

A December report from Front Line Defenders illuminates what happens inside Morocco’s military tribunals. Mary Lawlor, Executive Director of Front Line, criticised ‘…the inability of the Moroccan authorities to hold a trial in line with international fair trial standards…’. At the second postponed trial in November, Frontline Defenders reported the harassment and intimidation of the defendants, the defence lawyers and international observers, including the representatives of Front Line, the British Bar Association and the International Commission of Jurists. Front Line records that ‘On Friday 05 November as the trial reconvened the Security Services again allowed a large crowd to enter the courtroom so that there was no room for the international observers. As the trial got under way the people in the public gallery began chanting the Moroccan national anthem…and ‘Sahara is Moroccan’ and ‘Traitors Traitors’. When the four defendants who had previously been released on provisional liberty and their defence lawyers arrived the crowd tried to attack them. The judge finally left the court because of the noise from the public gallery at which point the crowd started to attack the Sahrawi human rights defenders beating them and shouting insults. In the resulting melee two Spanish journalists were injured…’ [6] The Collective of Saharawi Human Rights Defenders (CODESA), based in Layounne city in the Occupied Territory, confirmed in their statement that there had been ‘an intense presence of different Moroccan security/secret services in the trial room’.

Readers new to the Western Sahara story will be able to surmise from this special issue that there is an extensive group of observers who have followed the conflict for many years: from international lawyers and political scientists to NGOs and human rights campaigners from around the world. This latest trial has yet again stunned us all with regard to Morocco’s persistent audacity to blatantly defy international law, digging itself deeper into a geo-politically embarrassing legal ditch of its own making.

Michèle Decaster, a human rights observer at the trial from the French campaign groups AFASPA and BIRDHSO (Bureau International pour le Respect des Droits de l’Homme au Sahara Occidental), and who had been sending us outside observers her updated reports of the delayed trials, communicates of this final trial that, ‘The fifty European observers who took turns during the 9 days’ of the trial are so shocked at the severity of the sentences that they ‘are prepared to offer to publishers their respective observation mission reports they will write individually or collectively’ to expose Morocco’s ‘failure of law, not only in reference to the treaties and conventions ratified by Morocco’. [Konstantina 2 photo – taken by Michele with permission to reprint"> Other European observers at the trial have posted their accounts from inside the Moroccan courtroom to the Western Sahara Human Rights Watch website A video compilation of scenes inside the courtroom may be seen here: Readers can see an example of observer’s mission reports of the trial, from another European mission, written by French observers Jean-Pierre Lepri and Brigitte Milan.

Even in the US, despite its long-time government support of Morocco, American organisations have written to Kim Sook, President of the United Nations Security Council. Suzanne Scholte of the Defense Forum Foundation, and Seoul Peace Prize Laureate 2008, has urged him to ‘prevent these continuing atrocities’ and to implement the long delayed Sahrāwī right to self-determination. Don L. Pepper, Chairman of the Strategic Conflict Resolution Group writes: ‘This appears to have been a politically motivated show trial. We call on the United Nations Security Council to pressure Morocco to overturn the sentences’. In its press statement, the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights said it was ‘deeply disturbed by the mistreatment and the military trial of 25 Sahrawi in Morocco’.

While such appeals are made to the United Nations, which never seems to enact its original mandate regarding breaches of international law in the Western Sahara case, its other half responded on the 19 February, within 48 hours of the trial. Rupert Colville, spokesperson for the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights said: ‘We are concerned by the use of a military court…[it is"> important that the judicial processes scrupulously abide by international fair trial standards’.

This is just a small selection of international calls for an end to the ludicrous situation in Western Sahara. What is clear is the extraordinary amount of support worldwide for the Sahrāwī cause and the persistent condemnation of Morocco’s blatant breach of international law in the Western Sahara story.

Morocco’s unintelligent political tactics leave the Sahrāwī in a very difficult position. The POLISARIO Front has called the trial ‘a provocative and escalatory step’ and the severe sentencing does nothing to contribute to efforts to resolve the conflict within the UN framework. Increasingly, Sahrāwī and many of us observers are left with the question: is a return to war the only solution to force Morocco to abandon its breach of international law on its invasion of a neighbouring sovereign territory? It is certainly the Sahrāwī peoples’ right under international law to use of force against a colonial and foreign occupation.

I will close with two quotes from the international network that closely watches Morocco’s actions in the Western Sahara story. From his interim report as European legal observer of this latest Rabat trial, France Weyl from the Paris-based Association Internationale des Juristes Démocrates – Droit Solidarité closed with a special message to the families of the convicted 24 Sahrāwī:

‘In this regard and as we told the families of the victims with whom we spoke, we can only bow to their suffering. But this suffering can justify the accused whose guilt has not been established, but convicted under conditions that would only add suffering to suffering and injustice on injustice.’

And in an email conversation with me, international jurist Pedro Pinto Liete conveyed his assessment of the Rabat trial:

‘Nelson Mandela was convicted by the racist regime of South Africa in a show trial. Years later he was elected president of a free and multiracial South Africa. Xanana Gusmao was convicted in a show trial by the Indonesian dictatorship which had illegally annexed East Timor. The dictator Suharto did not realize he had a Timorese Mandela in prison. Some years later, Xanana Gusmao was elected president of a free and independent Timor-Leste. The Moroccan satrap also realizes that, after another show trial, it has 22 Saharawi Mandela’s in prison. The problems of East Timor and Western Sahara are like two drops of water. History repeats itself. The liberation of Western Sahara is getting closer...’

There are many campaign groups around the world who support the Sahrāwī struggle for self-determination. I provide a short selection here:

Western Sahara Human Rights Watch
Western Sahara Resource Watch
APSO (French lobby group)
Free Western Sahara Campaign
Students for a Free Western Sahara
Norwegian Support Committee for Western Sahara
Fish Elsewhere! (seeks to stop the controversial fisheries agreement that the EU has negotiated with Morocco)
The Sahrawi Association of Victims of Grave Human Rights Violations Committed by the Moroccan State (ASVDH)
Sahara Press Service
Sahrawi Journalist and Writers Union


[1]The Guardian

[2] Human Rights Watch

[3] Photograph courtesy of WSRW WSRW

[4]European Parliament

[5]Amnesty International

[6] Frontline Defenders

* Konstantina Isidoros is a PhD candidate at University of Oxford.