Morocco/Western Sahara: Investigate alleged torture of six detained Sahrawis

The Moroccan authorities must immediately launch a full, independent and impartial investigation into allegations that six Sahrawi activists – including a child – were tortured in police custody in Western Sahara, Amnesty International said. On 15 May, 17-year old El Hussein Bah was jailed in Laayoune, Western Sahara, in spite of a previous decision to release him on bail. He and five other Sahrawis had been arrested on 9 May after protesting for the self-determination of Western Sahara.All six have been charged with “violence against public officials”, “participating in an armed gathering”, “placing objects on a road obstructing traffic” and “damaging public property”, punishable with up to 10 years in prison.They are currently in pre-trial detention in Laayoune Civil Prison, and there are fears they face unfair trials after reportedly being tortured into making “confessions”. “Reports that the Moroccan authorities subjected these six detainees – including a child – to torture and other ill-treatment to extract ‘confessions’ are deeply disturbing. The allegations must be thoroughly investigated, with those responsible brought to justice,” said Philip Luther, Director of Amnesty International’s Middle East and North Africa Programme. “El Hussein Bah must be and the remaining detainees must be treated humanely, protected from further torture and other ill-treatment, and have immediate access to all necessary medical care.”Amnesty International fears that the decision to re-arrest El Hussein Bah three days after his release on bail was in retaliation for him speaking out about his alleged torture. During his short release, the 17-year-old told Amnesty International that during his initial detention, police tortured him, threatened him with rape, and forced him to sign papers including a “confession” which he was not allowed to read. He alleged that police officers pressed a urine-soaked sponge against his face and pulled his trousers off before threatening him with rape. During his interrogation, he was beaten while kept in a position known as the “roast chicken” – where he was suspended from his knees, with his wrists tied over his legs. All six detainees told the investigative judge that they had been tortured and otherwise ill-treated and that their “confessions” were extracted under torture in police custody. El Hussein Bah reported hearing other detainees being subjected to torture and other ill-treatment in separate cells while in police custody, and later noticing their visible bruising, handcuff marks and swollen joints.  Moroccan security forces reportedly failed to produce arrest warrants when they arrested the six Sahrawis at their homes on 9 May. Their family members have not all been allowed to fully exercise their right to visit the detainees. Calls for self-determinationThe demonstration on 4 May in Laayoune was the culmination of 10 days of protests across Western Sahara calling for the region’s self-determination after the United Nations Security Council voted to renew the mandate of its peacekeeping mission, known as the United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO). MINURSO was originally mandated in 1991 for a transitional period to prepare for a referendum in which the people of Western Sahara could choose between independence and integration with Morocco. MINURSO is one of the few UN peacekeeping missions that does not include a human rights component. A recent move by the USA to include a human rights component in the draft resolution under consideration by the Security Council was quashed after the Moroccan government objected. In recent years, Sahrawi pro-independence activists have faced restrictions on their work, including harassment, surveillance by the security forces, limitations on their freedom of movement, and in some cases prosecution on grounds of threatening Morocco’s “internal” and “external” security. They have also been unable to obtain legal registration for their organizations, apparently due to politically-motivated administrative obstacles. Besides the recent case, other Sahrawis have also been imprisoned following demonstrations calling for the right to Western Saharan self-determination, and others have reportedly been tortured or otherwise ill-treated during questioning by Moroccan law enforcement officials, allegations which have not been properly investigated. On a recent visit to Western Sahara, an Amnesty International delegation met protesters who reported being injured by security forces in Laayoune on 25 and 26 April and in Smara on 28 April 2013. The delegation observed security officers hurling rocks at protesters on 27 April 2013 in Laayoune, an incident that was also backed up by video footage. For several years, the organization has been calling for a United Nations human rights monitoring mechanism to look into Western Sahara and the Tindouf refugee camps across the border in Algeria. “The UN needs an adequate human rights monitoring presence in the region to provide independent and impartial reporting on the current situation, including allegations of torture and other ill-treatment,” said Philip Luther. “It would play a key role in documenting human rights violations that would otherwise go unreported, and prevent unfounded accusations in other cases.”