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Increasing restrictions by Morocco against activists of Western Sahara

A screenshot from a video uploaded on Twitter by Polisario Front's ambassado at the EU, showing Sahrawi activist Sultana bruised from attack by Moroccan police.

Human rights violations in Western Sahara, which is occupied by the Kingdom of Morocco, targetting Saharawi separatist journalists, civilians, and separatist activists have intensified after an escalation in November ended three decades of relative peace in the region.

On February 13, activist Sultana Sayed Ibrahim Khaya was subjected to physical violence and beating by the Moroccan authorities in Boujdour, a disputed area between the Kingdom of Morocco and the Polisario Front, the Algeria-based movement for the independence of Western Sahara.

Sultana Khaya, who is the president of the Saharawi League for the Defense of Human Rights and Protection of Natural Resources, and a member of the Saharawi Commission against the Moroccan Occupation, was injured in the face and the eye after she was pelted with stones by the Moroccan security forces.

Her sister, Alwaara, was injured in the face near the mouth as a result of the beating. Meanwhile, the Moroccan security forces impose a siege on their family's home in the same city, not allowing them to leave its premises.

Regarding the beating of activist Sultana, Saharawi activist Aminatou Haidar wrote:

Sultana Khaya, the Saharawi brave activist and member of the Saharawi Commission against the Moroccan Occupation@IsacomSaharaui, was a victim to a brutal assualt by the Moroccan occupation police this morning. This makes the worrisome suitation of the Saharawis in the occupied territories clear. @mbachelet @UN @MaryLawlorhrds pic.twitter.com/6MH3ahluvv

Regional escalation

The regional political scene got heated on November 13 last year, following the incident of the Guerguerat border area, which is located in a buffer zone monitored by the United Nations mission MINURSO, which is tasked with seeing through a referendum on self-determination in Western Sahara.

In late October, Saharawi civilians blocked the Guerguerat road, which runs through the buffer zone and connects Western Sahara to Mauritania. The area has long been under the control of the Moroccan kingdom, which the Polisario considers as a violation of the 1991 ceasefire agreement signed by two parties.

On November 13, the Moroccan military forces cleared the buffer zone of civilians and Saharawi political activists without causing injuries or arrests. The Polisario deemed that action as an effective end to the ceasefire and pledged to “resume war.” The president of the Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic, Brahim Ghali, announced that the Polisario Front was ending the ceasefire agreement and, since then, there have been reports of fire exchange between the two sides.

According to Saharawi human rights and media organizations:

عمليات القمع الممنهج الممارس من قبل الاحتلال المغربي ارتفعت ضد الصحراويين العزل بشكل ’هستيري’ في المناطق المحتلة من الصحراء الغربية ناهيك عن حصار منازلهم واختطافهم، وصولا الى التصفية الجسدية.

Systematic repression by the Moroccan occupation has increased against the unarmed Saharawis in a “hysterical” manner in the occupied areas of Western Sahara. Not to mention the siege of their homes and their abduction, all the way to physical elimination.

Large parts of the phosphate-rich Western Sahara have been under Moroccan occupation since 1975, despite its inhabitants’ demands for independence. Rabat rejects any referendum for self-determination as long as independence is one of its options, although Morocco itself agreed to this option under the 1991 ceasefire with the Polisario, brokered by the UN, which does not recognize the kingdom's annexation of the territory. The inflammatory effect of this has worsened after the United States recognized Morocco's sovereignty over the disputed Western Sahara last December, as part of a deal in which Rabat committed to normalizing relations with Israel.

Following this American recognition, which warned of an escalation in violence, the Saharawi Commission against the Moroccan Occupation wrote:

Even if the world were to ally against the Saharawi people (which is impossible of course), it would not break their will for freedom and independence. It would not change the legal status of a non-self-governing Western Sahara territory discussed in the Special Political and Decolonization Committee (Fourth Committee).

According to local organizations monitoring the human rights situation in Western Sahara, November events were followed by the Moroccan police cracking down on Sahrawi activists, with house raids, increased surveillance, and arrests. Moreover, access to the region has become particularly difficult for external observers. In 2020, Moroccan authorities prevented at least nine lawyers, activists, politicians, and journalists from reaching territories of Western Sahara.

In a statement to Human Rights Watch, activist Sultana said that the attack on her in February was not the first, for the police had earlier raided her family home on November 19, beating her 84-year-old mother on the head until she lost consciousness and then was taken to the hospital in an ambulance, as well as injuring her sister Alwaara Sayed Ibrahim on the head with an iron bar, causing her to have a hemorrhage.

Polisario's representative in Europe and the European Union Oubi Bachir wrote:

“This is the struggle tax, I knew I had to pay it. I was ready and I still am, perhaps more now than ever.” That was the summary of my conversation with her this evening, to check on her condition after today's treacherous attack by the Moroccan police. She was stressed and her voice was breaking up, but her pride is sustained and continuous. Indeed, Sultana Khaya #سلطانة_خيا is a woman with the strength of a thousand men!!

‘International bias’

On March 10, in a statement published on her Facebook account, Sultana criticized what she called as bias by the International Red Cross in favor of Morocco, noting that she had repeatedly appealed to “international human and nations rights organizations, particularly the International Committee of the Red Cross, to urgently intervene and protect me and my family from the oppression of the Moroccan occupation.” The statement adds:

أمام ما أعيشه وأتعرض له رفقة عائلتي من جرائم ضد الإنسانية، وإرهاب، وتنكيل، وقمع ممنهج، وسحل بالشارع، ومنع زيارة المنزل وقطع للتيار الكهربائي عن منزل عائلتي ببوجدور المحتلة، ورميي بمواد سامة أجهل طبيعتها،

In the face of what my family and I endure — of crimes against humanity, terrorism, persecution, systematic repression, dragging along the streets, denial of visits to the house, cutting power off my family's home in occupied Boujdour, and throwing me with poisonous substances, I do not know their nature.

She added that a visit by a delegation from the International Red Cross to Moroccan entities in the occupied city of Laayoune, on March 6, was “a flagrant violation of the principles of independence and non-alignment.”

Past violations

In what she described as the “deplorable human rights situation of Saharawi civilians,” Sultana Khaya referred to the detained Sahrawi politician Mohamed Lemine Abidin Hadi, who was sentenced to 25 years in prison in trials marred by flaws and defects. Mohamed Lemin has been on an open hunger strike since January 13, and his family is concerned about his deteriorating health and their inability to communicate with him due to the intransigence of the Moroccan prison administration.

In her statement, Sultana also referred to “the unjust and illegal sentences of the Moroccan occupation court against human rights activists Ghali Hamdi Albu Bouhala and Muhammad Othman Potosofra, and the list is long of violations and systematic repression against Saharawis who reject the occupation”.

In the same vein, Hayat Khatri, a Sahrawi television and radio reporter, described that Saharawis in the occupied cities live in:

بيئة سياسية قمعية خطرة، يكتسح انتهاك حقوق الانسان الصحراوي فضاءاتها من كل الاتجاهات، لتفرض دولة الاحتلال سيطرتها على مفاصل المقاومة الصحراوية، ومواجهة الصحراويين بكل الوسائل الحاطة بالكرامة الانسانية.

A dangerous repressive political environment, that the violation of Sahrawi human rights sweeps its spaces from all directions, for the occupying state to impose its control over the joints of the Sahrawi resistance, and to face the Saharawis by all means that demeans the human dignity.

Hayat also said that her family's house in the Al-Hashisha neighborhood is surrounded and under surveillance, adding that “the Moroccan forces are using a barbaric tactic aimed at curbing any act of resistance through which Sahrawi civilians try to express their political positions against the existence of the occupation.”

Furthermore, in a report issued in December 18, Eric Goldstein, acting Executive Director of Human Rights Watch's Middle East and North Africa division, said “Moroccan and Polisario's forces may face border and diplomatic disputes, but this does not justify Morocco's repression of Sahrawi civilians who peacefully oppose the Moroccan rule.”

The Washington Post recently published an analysis of videos it conducted, showing a violent physical assault by the Moroccan security agents against Sahrawi activists last July, contrary to the official version.

Warnings are coming in that the situation in Western Sahara will worsen unless international parties intervene to resolve the conflict. “The recent hostilities portend further escalation, especially in the absence of international efforts to calm the situation and push the two parties back to the negotiating table,” wrote a Crisis Group report on March 11.

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