The price to pay for human dignity

 Saharawis populate most of Western Sahara. Photo: Annonymous Saharawi photographer

Saharawis populate most of Western Sahara. Photo: Annonymous Saharawi photographer

Have you heard about the non-self-governing territory Western Sahara, partially occupied by Morocco since 1975? Or about the Saharawi population, living in refugee camps for over 40 years? Few have.

I did not fully understand the conflict myself, until I went to the capital of Morocco, Rabat, to observe a court case against prisoners from Western Sahara. Before I travelled, I read the most horrifying testimonies on torture that shook me to my core. I read about how these detainees had been arbitrary arrested, some of them abducted, and how they had been detained for almost seven years. How could this be legal? The answer is that it's not. 

I entered the Court of Appeal in Salé on the 26th of December 2016. This was the first time I saw the “Gdeim Izik” group. The group consists of human rights activists and journalists. They all have in common that they are openly advocating for the right for self-determination in Western Sahara. The “Gdeim Izik” group is named after a protest camp set up by the Saharawi in 2010.

The moment Sultana, a Saharawi activist, gets arrested for waving the Saharawi (SADR) flag in Bojador (21.09.2017). Photo: Equipe Media

19 of the original 25 activists from the group are currently imprisoned in Morocco, sentenced to 20, 25, 30 years - and some to lifetime. The 19 Saharawi political prisoners were on the 16th of September 2017 relocated and separated into 6 different prisons throughout Morocco. The Moroccan authorities relocated the prisoners in the middle of the night, around 3 a.m. - without informing anybody in advance. Neither the prisoners themselves, their families or their lawyers were informed about the relocation. 11 of the prisoners remained “missing” for over 24 hours after the transfer, as neither the families nor their lawyer knew where they were. They just knew they had been taken. In the middle of the night. In their pyjamas.

None of the prisoners were allowed to take their personal belongings with them. They were reportedly deprived of hygiene products, adequate clothing, blankets, books, adequate medical care and food. The families of the prisoners issued a statement on the 20th of September, declaring that during the first weeks after transportation, the prisoners were kept in isolation cells and allegedly subjected to constant harassments by the prison guards. Also, several of the prisoners commenced on hunger strikes. Reportedly, some of the prisoners slept on the concrete floor, wearing nothing but the clothes they were forcibly transferred in during the night of the 16th of September.  The families of the prisoners declared in a following statement issued on the 26th of September that the prison guards insult the Saharawi prisoners systematically. The families further informed that the prison warden made death threats towards the prisoners on hunger strike, and that he refused to enter into any negotiations with them. Allegedly, the prison warden, when confronted with one of the detainees, Hassan Eddah, told him that “Whether you live or die - you are nothing!..... a few days after your death no one will remember you”.

From peaceful protest to persecution. Photo: 1. Anonymous 2. Equipe Media 3. Anonymous 4. Screenshot from local T.V.

I’d like to reiterate the words of Special Rapporteur Juan E. Mendez in 2011, where he stated that “segregation, isolation, separation, cellular, lockdown, Supermax, the hole, Secure Housing Unit... whatever the name, solitary confinement should be banned by States as a punishment or extortion technique”. I agree. The Special Rapporteur Mendez further found that solitary confinement when used for the purpose of punishment cannot be justified, and highlighted that “any imposition of solitary confinement beyond 15 days constitutes torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, depending on the circumstances.” Today, the prisoners are held isolated in solitary confinements for 22 hours a day, and their health situation is reportedly worsening rapidly. The prisoners have been kept in prolonged solitary confinement since their transfer, now pending 85 days. We are therefore over the threshold of 15 days by safe margin. Some of the prisoners have been placed alone in a prison, isolated from the rest of the group, in a prison in Morocco, far from their families. Not to mention, alone in a foreign country.

All have been forced to use hunger strike to demand the most basic rights. Their health is rapidly worsening as a consequence of the ill-treatment and the continued hunger strikes. In all honesty, the fact that these Sahrawi human rights defenders felt that they had no other choice but to starve themselves in protest is a terrible token of the continued repression of human rights defenders from Western Sahara.

"Some of the prisoners have been placed alone in a prison, isolated from the rest of the group, in a prison in Morocco, far from their families." Photo: Mali Galaaen Røsseth

On the 5th of December, two of the prisoners were forcibly transferred to the «hot box» or «coffin cells». Punished to ten days of torture. These kind of cells are approximately 1,5m2. It's literally a box. No Windows. No light. No stimula. They have Been placed in these boxes, naked, without any means to cover themselves, after reportedly being beaten and slapped. The only «inventar» is their urine and feces, which they have to dispose next to them. This kind of punishment is considered one of the most brutal forms of psychological torture. Not only are they in extreme physical pain - their minds have no means to escape the situation.

The families believe that this unexpected and forced replacement of the prisoners, the usage of solitary confinements and constant harassment are aimed at punishing the detainees as they are advocating for the right to self-determination; and as a mean of suppressing the Saharawi population and intimidate them from calling for their right of self-determination.

You should have seen this group of political prisoners in the Court of Appeal in Salé. Locked up in a prison in Morocco, in the country that has occupied their own country. The country that systematically imprison them for their political opinions, was now about to judge them, yet again. The prisoners chanted slogans, and showed their support to Polisario, the representatives of the Saharawi people. The prisoners stood in front of the judge, dressed up in their traditional Saharawi costume (The Dakhla), spoke Hassania (the Saharawi dialect), and chanted “the only solution is self-determination”. They did not waiver in their demands, even though I think that they knew perfectly well what would happen to them, once the media and the international observers left.

Soldiers patrolling along foregin aid trucks in a Sahawari camp. Photo: Mali Galaaen Røsseth

The Sahrawis, the local population, have an inherent right to call for the right to self-determination, and they should not, and can not be punished for it. Western Sahara is known as Africa’s last Colony. They were never de-colonized, and now, Morocco is preventing the decolonization process, if not denying it altogether, with the support from two powerful allies, France and Spain. According to Morocco, Western Sahara is the Southern Provinces of the Kingdom of Morocco. According to Morocco, the very mention of self-determination or Western Sahara, let alone Polisario, is deemed as a threat to the territorial integrity and security of the Kingdom.

However, Western Sahara is still listed as a non-self-governing territory, and is still entitled to the right to self-determination. The Saharawi people have still the right to call for self-determination, and they have the right to choose their own future, without discrimination and marginalization.

"Western Sahara is still listed as a non-self-governing territory, and is still entitled to the right to self-determination." Photo: Mali Galaaen Røsseth

The spike of the decolonization process in the early 1960s affirmed the right to self-governance, and as stated by the United Nations Special Committee on Decolonization, there is no alternative to the colonizer than allowing a process of self-determination. The General Assembly in resolution 3314 (1974), affirmed the right to “self-determination, freedom and independence” of people that are ”forcibly deprived of that right” and ”particularly people under colonial and racist regimes or other forms of alien domination”. The general assembly also expressed the right of the people deprived of their right to self-determination to ”struggle and to seek and receive support”. The resolution was followed up in resolution 37/43 (1982) - where the General Assembly reaffirm ”the legitimacy of the struggle for peoples for independence, territorial integrity, national unity and liberation from colonial and foreign domination and foreign occupation by all available means, including armed struggle”.  

A Saharawi waving the SADR flag. Photo: Mali Galaaen Røsseth

Such conflicts are labelled as wars of national liberation and humanitarian law is meant to govern the situation, and the International Committee of the Red Cross should visit the prisoners. Further, the local population, as set forth by the General Assembly, has an inherent right to resist the occupation and to call for the right to self-determination, as enshrined in Additional Protocol 1 art. 1 (4) to the Geneva Conventions. Both Morocco and Polisario is party to the mentioned protocol, and the Western Sahara Conflict is recognized as a conflict falling under the scope of application of Additional Protocol 1. However, as stated, Morocco denies this fact. In the courtroom, when the defence tried to invoke the Fourth Geneva Convention, the Moroccans lawyers argued that the prisoners were Moroccans, since they had Moroccan identity cards and Moroccan names. This factor relates to when Morocco occupied the territory, back in 1975, when they deprived all Saharawis of their former Spanish identity cards, and gave them new names and Moroccan identity cards. This is what we call annexation, and does not change the legal status whatsoever. On the contrary; it supports the notion that Morocco does not have a claim to the territory it forcibly occupies, because as we know, annexation is a breach to international customs.

The Saharawi have broad support abroad - but are still far from self-determination at home. Photo: Annonymous Saharawi photographer

The Saharawi activists was arrested in Western Sahara, a non-self governing territory, and transferred to another country: Morocco. The Saharawi prisoners all have in common that they are advocating for the right to self-determination. Self-determination is however a difficult and costly price to pay for the occupied.

Whilst the world remains silent, the Saharawis continue to be oppressed in retaliation for their political opinions. Now, the Saharawi activists might have to pay the ultimate price, their life, in their struggle for human dignity.

The "Gdeim Izik" activists in court. Photo: Screenshot from local T.V.

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Tone Sørfonn Moe is a volunteer at the Norwegian support committee for Western Sahara. She is currently studying law at the University of Bergen, and has a bachelor degree in European studies. 

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