The Moroccan authorities must urgently investigate allegations that police and security forces brutally assaulted five Sahrawi women activists, Amnesty International said today. The organization has investigated the circumstances around the attacks, which took place during five separate incidents on 15 and 16 April, in the city of Boujdour in Western Sahara.
Zeinab Babi, Embarka Al Hafidhi, Fatima al-Hafidhi, Oum Al Moumin Al Kharashi and Nasrathum (Hajatna) Babi were targeted after their participation in peaceful protests for Sahrawi self-determination, and after they expressed public support for Sultana Khaya, a prominent Sahrawi activist. Moroccan police officers and plainclothes security agents beat the women with sticks and punched and kicked them. One woman lost consciousness and required reconstructive surgery on her hand. Two of the women reported that they had been sexually assaulted.
“Five weeks on from these appalling attacks, the Moroccan authorities have yet to lift a finger to investigate. These women have peacefully exercised their right to freedom of expression and assembly and yet they were brutally assaulted, leaving them with cuts, bruises and, in at least one case, broken bones,” said Amna Guellai, Amnesty International’s Deputy Director for the Middle East and North Africa.
“So far, the perpetrators have enjoyed complete impunity. Instead of seeking justice for these women, Moroccan authorities have stationed security agents outside their houses, leaving them afraid to go outside. We are urging Moroccan authorities to end the harassment and violence against Sahrawi activists, and to launch immediate, impartial investigations into all allegations of torture and other ill-treatment by Moroccan police and security agents.”
Sultana Khaya and her family have been under house arrest since November 2020, during which time Moroccan authorities have subjected them to multiple grave human rights violations, including Khaya’s rape.
The five women activists had been on the streets of Boujdour, most of them heading towards Sultana Khaya’s house to join in peaceful protests on her rooftop when they were attacked separately by groups of Moroccan security agents.
One of the most serious incidents took place on 16 April, when Moroccan police arrested Zeinab Babi, without telling her why, while she was in a taxi on her way to a supermarket. Two police officers hit and kicked Zeinab in the car on the way to the police station. At the police station, four officers interrogated Zeinab about her activism, while insulting her and intermittently hitting and punching her.
Zeinab was finally released after three hours, but her ordeal was not over. When she was walking home from the police station, more police officers and security agents assaulted her. In the first attack, which happened near the police station, a group of police officers and security agents beat her with sticks. Zeinab was about to reach her house when a group of security agents surrounded her, kicked and punched her, and beat her with wooden sticks until she lost consciousness.
Zeinab’s family took her to hospital where she was treated for her injuries. She had to have reconstructive surgery on her left hand, which was broken in several places.
On the same day, five plainclothes agents stopped Embarka Al-Hafidhi while she was walking with her son to Sultana Khaya’s house to join a peaceful gathering. The agents beat Embarka, and some tore at her clothes and touched her on her groin area.
All five women told Amnesty International that there have been agents stationed outside their houses since the incidents, and that they have been afraid to leave their houses for fear of being attacked again.
Amnesty International calls on the Moroccan authorities to uphold their obligations under international human rights law and respect the rights to freedom of expression, association, peaceful assembly, and freedom from torture and other ill-treatment.
The Moroccan authorities have long imposed arbitrary restrictions on the rights of Sahrawis to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and association, particularly where the exercise of those rights relates to the status of Western Sahara. Moroccan security forces have used unnecessary and excessive force to disperse peaceful demonstrations, and Sahrawi activists have faced harassment, intimidation and prosecution.
Sultana Khaya is the president of an organization called the ‘League for the Defence of Human Rights and against Plunder of Natural Resources’ and is known for her vocal activism in defence of the right of self-determination for the Sahrawi people. The Moroccan authorities have held Sultana and her family under arbitrary house arrest since November 2020, during which time they have subjected them to multiple episodes of torture or other ill-treatment, included sexual assault and rape.
The Moroccan authorities continue to restrict access to Morocco and Western Sahara for journalists, peaceful activists and human rights defenders, and to prevent impartial and independent human rights monitoring and reporting by the UN.
On 16 March 2022, four American activists managed to enter Khaya’s house to show solidarity with Sultana and her family. At first the presence of the volunteers seemed to abate the close watch of the security forces but, since 15 April, the police presence has intensified outside Khaya’s house as well as at the houses of other activists.