‘They tore off my clothes, leaving me naked in front of their ferocious eyes,’ 20 year-old Nguia El Haouasi tells me as she describes the ordeal she suffered last year at the hands of Moroccan police. As a campaigner for self-determination of her native Western Sahara, she has been arrested many times. On this occasion she was released after just 24 hours, but not before she had been beaten and tortured. I met Nguia, a delicate young woman, at an international conference in Algiers last weekend. At the end of the conference, whilst other delegates were flying home in comfort, Nguia – along with 72 other human rights defenders from Western Sahara – were preparing to run the gauntlet of returning to their home in Layoune, where they knew the Moroccan police would be waiting. The human rights defenders decided to stagger their travel, flying in three separate groups accompanied by international observers and journalists.
The first group arrived on Monday and despite a large and intimidating police presence, they were allowed to pass unmolested. The second group were not so fortunate. On Wednesday evening, as the 28 activists came out of the airport terminal, the police closed in. ‘They started shoving, punching and kicking indiscriminately,’ said Carmelo Ramirez, one of the observers and president of the Federation of Institutions in Solidarity with the Sahara (FEDISSAH). ‘One young activist, Mohamed Mayara, was seriously wounded by a blow to the head.’ According to Ramirez, Mayara ‘chose not to go to hospital out of fear’ and was instead treated in an ambulance, where he received several stitches to his head and lip. Spanish actor Guillermo Toledo, who travelled with the human rights defenders from Algiers, was attempting to record the assaults on his mobile phone when he was also targeted. ‘Several policemen jumped on me, pulling me down, kicking and punching me.’ He suffered a fractured finger.
Holding hands and with their mouths taped-up 94 activists held a sit-down protest in the street in front of the bristling police
The third group arrived on Thursday evening and managed to travel to the house where Saharawi activists had gathered to celebrate their return. Around 100 police had also turned up and surrounded the house. Holding hands and with their mouths taped-up 94 activists held a sit-down protest in the street in front of the bristling police. According to Spanish journalist Laura Gallego who was there, the police were ‘plunged into confusion’ and stood by, uncertain how to react. The protest was heralded by Saharawi human rights activist Asfari Ennaama as an important victory. ‘Our silence said so much. Our silence was an eloquent denunciation of the repression to which we are subjected, our lack of freedom and the violation of our rights.’
Friday 8 October marks the first anniversary of the arrest of several prominent human rights defenders who 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 activists – Brahim Dahane, president of ASVDH, Ali Salem Tamek, vice-president of CODESA, and Ahmed Naciri, vice-president Samara Saharawi Human Rights Committee – are still imprisoned in Sale jail, Rabat, awaiting trial by a military tribunal. If found guilty of ‘treason’ they could face the death sentence. Meanwhile, over 20 expert witnesses are expected to give testimony of human rights abuses in occupied Western Sahara to the United Nations Decolonization Committee in New York this week. Campaigners will also gather there to call for the United Nations to immediately enforce Security Council resolutions requiring a referendum on self-determination in Western Sahara.