‘I have just lived through one of the most terrifying experiences of my life,’ renowned Spanish actor Willy Toledo tells me over the phone in the early hours of Tuesday morning (28 September). He, together with six other international observers, had just accompanied 28 Saharawi human rights defenders on their trip back from an international conference in Algeria to their home in Layoune, Western Sahara, the mineral-rich former Spanish colony controlled by Morocco.
‘As we came out of the airport we were surrounded by about 150 policemen,’ Toledo continues. ‘They eventually let us pass but when we got into town we were confronted by even more police blocking us from getting to the house where a reception had been organized for the activists’ return.’ There was a tense stand-off as hundreds of Saharawi supporters gathered to protect the activists, helping to forge a path to the house. ‘The police were pushing and shoving us, shouting abuse and spitting on the women,’ says Toledo breathlessly. ‘Once we were inside the house they tried to force their way in, beating on the door with batons.’
None of us have chosen this life of struggle. We were born into it
Although terrifying, Toledo admits that the police had probably been ordered not to use violence. This contrasts with the usual treatment meted out by the authorities to returning Saharawi activists. Last October seven prominent human rights defenders were arrested in Casablanca airport after returning from a visit to the refugee camps in Algeria, where around 165,000 Saharawi have lived in exile for over 35 years. Three of the seven remain in prison awaiting trial by a military tribunal and a possible death sentence if found guilty. Over the last year, scores of other activists who have made the same journey have been beaten by the police on their return home.
At the conference the human rights defenders had been in buoyant mood. After having given their testimony to the audience made up of over 300 delegates from 22 countries they mingled easily, laughing and joking despite the knowledge that in the coming days they might face beatings and arrests. Forty year-old Ibrahim Brahim Saber, an activist who has been in and out of prison since the age of 16, was well aware of the risks when he spoke to me in Algiers on Sunday. ‘I have been beaten and tortured many times and in many ways,’ he said. ‘But none of us have chosen this life of struggle. We were born into it.’
Another human rights defender, Mohamed Boutaba, was keen to show me a photograph of him lying in a pool of blood. He had been participating in a peaceful protest in Layoune in 2006 which had been baton charged by police. He was struck on the head and the force of the blow left him in a coma for over a month. ‘Even now my eyesight is not good and the aches in my head often stop me from sleeping,’ he tells me. Boutaba, who works for an organization documenting human rights abuses, also knew violence was likely on his return to Layoune. ‘You never know,’ he shrugs, ‘I might get struck by the same police baton that broke my skull four years ago.’
At the closing ceremony the mood in the conference hall was one of defiance. A motion was passed that called on the United Nations to immediately enforce Security Council resolutions requiring the organization of a free and fair referendum on self-determination in Western Sahara. The motion also reaffirmed the legitimacy of Saharawi people’s right to peaceful resistance against the occupation of their homeland. With a further 55 Saharawi human rights defenders who participated in the conference due to make the journey back to Layoune this Wednesday and Thursday, more peaceful resistance is inevitable. It can only be hoped that the presence of international observers as well as journalists, might persuade the Moroccan authorities not to react with violence.