Rabat’s military tribunal sentenced the 25 Saharawis on 17 February 2013 for charges relating to violent resistance to the Moroccan authorities during the latter’s destruction of the Gdeim Izik protest camp. Nine received life sentences, 14 received terms between 20 and 30 years, and 2 were sentenced to the 2 years that they had already spent in pre-trial detention. All had faced the death penalty. The trial came after two earlier postponements (the trial had originally been scheduled for January 2012, but was pushed back to October 2012, then postponed again) for reasons that remain unclear.
Civilians tried in a military tribunal
Given that all the defendants were civilians, trying them before a military court violates a basic norm of international law concerning fair trials. Military courts should be used for trialing military personnel only, for offences of a purely military nature. In Morocco, defendants facing a military tribunal are at a particular disadvantage since there is no possibility of recourse to an appeals-level court.
The sole pieces of “evidence” extracted under torture
The main, if not the sole, pieces of “evidence” on which the 25 Saharawis were convicted were their police statements. The defendants’ complaints that these were extracted by police using torture (a common practice used by Moroccan authorities in Western Sahara, as the UN Rapporteur on Torture found upon his recent visit to the territory) were ignored by the judges, only one of whom was a civilian. During the trial, all defendants, when given a chance to speak, explained that they had been forced to sign or put their fingerprints on statements that they had not read under violent torture, some whilst blindfolded.
During the trial, the court’s only prosecution witness (a Moroccan firefighter who said that his shoulder was injured during the clashes over the destruction of the Gdeim Izik camp) was unable to identify any of the defendants and link them to the alleged acts of violence. No police officers were questioned during the trial despite the defense’s request that the police who took the defendants’ statements be interviewed. Similarly, the weapons produced by the prosecution were not linked forensically to any of the defendants. The court rejected the defense’s demand for DNA tests on the weapons.
The pre-trial detention
21 of the defendants spent over two years in pre-trial detention held at Salé prison, Morocco, far from their homes and families in Al Aaiun, Western Sahara. As Human Rights Watch has pointed out, according to Moroccan law, a suspect held in custody pending trial has a right to a speedy trial or to release, and to periodic review by a judge, who must consider if the detention is still lawful, bearing in mind that detention before trial must be only under exceptional circumstances. Such rights were not afforded to any of the Gdeim Izik defendants.
Travesty of justice
All defendants maintain their innocence, professing that the real reason behind their detention is their activism for human rights, anti-discrimination and/or respect for the Saharawi people’s right to self-determination. February 2014 marks the one year anniversary of their sentencing. If you feel inspired to fight this travesty of justice, get ideas for taking action here.
Morocco occupies the major part of its neighbouring country, Western Sahara. Entering into business deals with Moroccan companies or authorities in the occupied territories gives an impression of political legitimacy to the occupation. It also gives job opportunities to Moroccan settlers and income to the Moroccan government. Western Sahara Resource Watch demands foreign companies leave Western Sahara until a solution to the conflict is found.
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Leading activists from Western Sahara are condemned to sentences ranging from 20 years to life imprisonment in connection to a mass protest in 2010 denouncing the Saharawi people’s social and economic marginalization in their occupied land; the Gdeim Izik protest camp.
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