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Morocco: Sahrawi activists on trial for visiting refugee camps should be released

Amnesty International has today called on the Moroccan authorities to immediately and unconditionally release three Sahrawi activists set to face trial following their visit to refugee camps in Algeria run by the Polisario Front.

The trial of Brahim Dahane, Ali Salem Tamek and Ahmed Nasiri, begins tomorrow (Friday 15 October) in the Court of First Instance, Casablanca.  All have been accused of “undermining (Morocco’s) internal security”. Amnesty considers the three men to be prisoners of conscience.

Yahdih Ettarouzi, Saleh Labihi, Dakja Lashgar, and Rachid Sghir who were provisionally released, are also on trial on the same charges.

Amnesty International Middle East and North Africa Director Malcolm Smart said:

“It is simply unacceptable that the Moroccan authorities are prosecuting these seven individuals, who include human rights defenders and former victims of enforced disappearance, for freely and openly visiting refugee camps and meeting with Polisario Front officials.”

“Brahim Dahane, Ali Salem Tamek and Ahmed Nasiri have been incarcerated for over a year for actions that amount to no more than peacefully exercising their right to freedom of expression and association.

“The charges against them are clearly politically motivated and they should be dropped immediately. These prosecutions should not proceed.”

Initially charged with “undermining (Morocco’s) external security”, and its “territorial integrity”, the case was under prolonged investigation by Morocco’s Military Court for nearly a year before being passed to civilian courts.

All three of those still being held have been confined at Salé Prison, near Rabat, since 16 October 2009. They were arrested on 8 October 2009 at Mohammed V airport in Casablanca following their return from refugee camps in Tindouf, Algeria.

Brahim Dahane, Ali Salem Tamek and Ahmed Nasiri are among a number of Sahrawi activists who have faced harassment and intimidation for publicly expressing their views on the self-determination of Western Sahara, which Morocco annexed in 1975, and for documenting human rights violations committed by the Moroccan authorities.

Brahim Dahane said in a statement made public via his family: “For a quarter of a century, we have been victims of arbitrary arrests, enforced disappearance and harassment as a result of our views, expressed peacefully”.

The Polisario Front calls for the independence of Western Sahara and runs a self-declared government in exile, the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR).

Malcolm Smart added:

“The Moroccan authorities should not treat peaceful political expression as a national security issue, as they are doing in this case.

“Instead, the Moroccan authorities must live up to their human rights obligations and demonstrate their commitment to the rule of law by upholding the right to freedom of expression and association for all those peacefully supporting the self-determination of Western Sahara.”

The Polisario Front has also clamped down on dissent. On 21 September Mustafa Salma, a Polisario Front member, was arrested by Polisario Front officials on his way to the Tindouf camps after having publicly supported autonomy for Western Sahara under Moroccan rule.

Despite also being a civilian, his case was first referred to a military trial and he was accused of undermining the security of SADR. According to the Sahara Press Service, he was released on 6 October, but his relatives have had no news from him since his arrest, raising fears about his safety.

Amnesty believes that the case of Brahim Dahane, Ali Salem Tamek and Ahmed Nasiri and similarities it has with the case of Mustafa Salma, demonstrate the importance of including a human rights monitoring component in the mandate of the United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO). This would serve to protect the affected populations, given that the Moroccan authorities and the Polisario Front have both accused each other of exploiting human rights concerns for political ends.

Note to editors
Sahrawis from Western Sahara arrived in the Tindouf refugee camps in 1975-76, after Morocco annexed the territory. The Algerian government estimates the number of Sahrawi refugees in the camps to be 165,000. The UNHCR assists about "90,000 vulnerable people in the camps". A ceasefire between Morocco and the Polisario Front has been in place since 1991.

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