Morocco police tortured 6 Sahrawi
protesters, Amnesty says

Six Sahrawi activists arrested this month after pro-independence protests in Western Sahara said they were tortured by Moroccan police and made to sign confessions, Amnesty International charged on Thursday.


"According to the information received by Amnesty International, all six men told the investigative judge that they had been tortured and otherwise ill-treated and that their 'confessions' were extracted under torture in police custody," the rights group said.


The men, aged between 17 and 31, were arrested on May 9 in connection with a major pro-independence protest five days earlier in Laayoune, the main city in the disputed territory, which turned violent.


They have been charged with violence against public officials, obstructing traffic, taking part in an armed gathering and damaging public property. They risk jail terms of up to 10 years, according to the London-based group.


The youngest, El Hussein Bah, told Amnesty that the police had "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," the rights watchdog said.


The Moroccan government did not respond to AFP's request for comment.


Interior Minister Mohand Laenser has said that protesters engineered the unrest that broke out during the demonstrations to "provoke the security forces."


Khalil Dkhil, the governor of Laayoune province, told AFP earlier in the week that those arrested were "six young men, including a minor, who were photographed as they were attacking the police."


The protests, in Laayoune, Smara and Boujdour on May 4 and 5, were some of the biggest the Western Sahara has witnessed in decades, with 2,000 activists marching in the main city alone, according to the official CNDH rights group.


Laensar told parliament shortly afterwards that 150 members of the security forces were injured in the unrest that followed the protests, some seriously, while insisting the demonstrators in Laayoune did not number more than 300.


Amnesty's regional director Philip Luther said the claims that the authorities used torture to extract "confessions" from the six detained activists, including a child, were "deeply disturbing."


"The allegations must be thoroughly investigated, with those responsible brought to justice," he said.


Rights groups have persistently raised concerns about alleged torture in the territory, most recently of 25 Sahrawis jailed by a military tribunal in February over deadly violence there more than two years earlier.


The Western Sahara is a highly sensitive subject in Morocco, which annexed the former Spanish colony in 1975 in a move never recognized by the international community.


Laenser said the unrest this month had been "carefully prepared" to exploit the visits of international rights activists and "create the impression of a climate of instability" in the region.


He said the strategy was financed "by foreign milieu through the Polisario [Front rebels]," and cited visits to the region of two Amnesty members and six representatives of European political parties before the unrest.


Tensions have been running high in the territory since the UN Security Council passed a resolution last month extending the mandate of the UN peacekeeping mission but omitting a US-backed plan to task it with human rights monitoring.


The proposal was dropped after furious lobbying by Morocco, with the resolution instead urging Morocco and the Polisario Front to pursue efforts to promote human rights in the Western Sahara.


Morocco has proposed broad autonomy under its sovereignty for the phosphate-rich territory.


But this is rejected by the Polisario Front, which took up arms to fight for an independent state until the United Nations negotiated a ceasefire in 1991, and which insists on the Sahrawis' right to a referendum on self-determination.

Morocco has proposed broad autonomy under its sovereignty for the phosphate-rich territory.