Western Sahara

Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor


Morocco claims the Western Sahara territory, with a population of approximately 383,000, according to recent UN estimates, and administers Moroccan law and regulations in the estimated 85 percent of the territory it controls; however, Morocco and the Polisario (Popular Front for the Liberation of the Saguia el Hamra and Rio de Oro), an organization seeking independence for the region, dispute its sovereignty. Since 1973 the Polisario has challenged the claims of Spain, Mauritania, and Morocco to the territory.

The Moroccan government sent troops and settlers into the northern two‑thirds of the territory after Spain withdrew in 1975 and extended its administration over the southern province of Oued Ed‑Dahab after Mauritania renounced its claim in 1979. Moroccan and Polisario forces fought intermittently from 1975 until the 1991 ceasefire and deployment to the area of a UN peacekeeping contingent, known by its French initials, MINURSO (the UN Mission for a Referendum in Western Sahara).

In 1975 the International Court of Justice advised that during the period of Spanish colonization, legal ties of allegiance existed between Morocco and some of the Western Saharan tribes, but the court also found that there were no ties indicating "territorial sovereignty" by Morocco. The court added that it did not find "legal ties" that might affect UN General Assembly Resolution 1514 regarding the decolonization of the territory and in particular the principle of self-determination for its persons.

Sahrawis, as the persons from the territory are called, live in the area controlled by Morocco, and live as refugees in Algeria near the border with Morocco, and to a lesser extent in Mauritania. A Moroccan‑constructed sand wall, known as the "berm," separates most Moroccan-controlled territory from Polisario‑controlled territory.

In 1988 Morocco and the Polisario accepted the joint Organization of African Unity/UN settlement proposals for a referendum allowing the Sahrawis to decide between integration with Morocco or independence for the territory. Disagreements over voter eligibility were not resolved, however, and a referendum has not taken place.

In 1997 then UN secretary-general Kofi Annan appointed James Baker as his personal envoy to explore options for a peaceful settlement. Baker visited the territory, consulted with the parties, offered proposals to resolve the problem, and in 2001 presented a "framework agreement," which Morocco accepted but the Polisario and Algeria rejected. In 2003 Baker proposed a peace plan, which the UN Security Council endorsed. The plan proposed that a referendum consider integration with Morocco or independence and addressed other questions agreed to by the parties, such as self-government or autonomy. Morocco ultimately rejected the plan, while the Polisario accepted it.

In 2005 Kofi Annan appointed Peter van Walsum, a former Dutch ambassador to the UN, as his personal envoy to oversee the political process.

On October 31, the Security Council adopted Resolution 1783, extending MINURSO and its 227-member military staff until April 31, 2008. In the secretary-general's October report to the Security Council, he renewed a call for all parties to engage in dialogue with the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights to ensure adequate human rights protection for all. The resolution called on Morocco and the Polisario to continue negotiations and requested that the secretary-general facilitate the talks. The first round of discussion occurred in June and the second in August. Neither session produced breakthroughs, but the parties agreed to continue meeting. Resolution 1783 also called on member states to consider voluntary contributions to the Confidence Building Measures that allow increased contact between family members separated by the dispute. The UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) maintained a separate office in Laâyoune to coordinate these measures.

The Moroccan constitution and laws apply to the civilian population living in the territory under Moroccan administration. Political rights for residents remained circumscribed, and citizens did not have the right to peacefully change their government. International human rights groups and Sahrawi activists maintained that the Moroccan government subjected Sahrawis who were suspected of supporting either Western Saharan independence or the Polisario to various forms of surveillance, arbitrary arrest, prolonged detention, and in many cases torture.

Since 1977 the inhabitants of the Western Saharan provinces of Laâyoune, Smara, Awsard, and Boujdour (and Oued Ed‑Dahab since 1983) have participated in Moroccan national and regional elections. In Morocco's September parliamentary elections, Sahrawis with pro-Morocco political views filled all the parliamentary seats allotted to the territory. No Sahrawis opposed to Moroccan sovereignty were candidates in the elections. According to Moroccan government statistics, the national election turnout was 37 percent, but 62 percent of registered voters in the territory participated. The international mission that observed the September elections did not monitor voting in Western Sahara, but domestic observers leveled accusations of corruption in some races.

In March 2006 King Muhammad VI appointed a new Royal Consultative Council for Saharan Affairs. The council, which met twice in 2007, was charged with developing an autonomy plan for the territory within the context of the Moroccan state.

A substantial Moroccan government subsidy aided migration to and development in the portions of the territory under its control. The government subsidized incomes, fuel, power, water, housing, and basic food commodities for residents of the territory.

During the year there were no confirmed reports of politically motivated disappearances in the territory under Moroccan administration.

On November 20, five skeletons were discovered outside the walls of Laayoune prison at the site of a construction project. The remains were transported to the local hospital, where government doctors were charged with determining the date and cause of death. The proindependence Collective of Sahrawi Human Rights Defenders (CODESA) claimed that police kept the discovery secret until November 28. The Moroccan government stated that the bodies dated to the early part of the 20th century, while many proindependence organizations claimed they dated to the early days of the Moroccan territorial administration in the 1970s and 1980s. In November the Moroccan government admitted in statements to the press that during this period activists and dissidents were secretly detained and sometimes killed but stated that the five skeletons were not of that era.

During the year the mothers of 15 Sahrawi activists, who disappeared in 2005 after departing for Spain in a boat, continued to allege that the activists were actually detained by Moroccan authorities. They further claimed that three had possibly been killed during interrogation and that the rest remained in secret custody. The government insisted that all 15 Sahrawi activists must have died at sea and denied any knowledge of their whereabouts. Neither side had produced any evidence regarding the fate of the 15 by year's end.

The Laayoune-based Sahrawi Association of Victims of Grave Human Rights Violations Committed by the Moroccan State (ASVDH) maintained a list of persons who allegedly had disappeared or been tortured since the conflict began. The list named more than 500 persons. In 1997 the Moroccan government pledged that such activities would not recur and agreed to disclose as much information as possible on past cases.

In 2004 authorities stated that they had released information on all confirmed disappearance cases, which totaled 112. However, human rights groups and families claimed hundreds of cases remained outstanding. International human rights organizations estimated that between 1,000 and 1,500 Sahrawis had disappeared in the territory between 1975 and the early 1990s, many of whom were held for long periods in undisclosed locations. The missing persons were both Sahrawis and Moroccans who challenged the Moroccan government's claim to the territory or other government policies.

On August 10, the Consultative Council on Human Rights (CCDH), a Moroccan government organization, opened a Laayoune field office. Since 2000 the CCDH has been paying reparations, including assisting with urgent medical or financial needs, to Sahrawis or the family members of those Sahrawis who had disappeared or been detained. The Laayoune office processed and paid 1,600 claims between August and December.

Human rights activists in Western Sahara stated that physical beating and torture continued and that the use of psychological and "mental stress" interrogations increased. They also reported increased uses of certain torture methods, including many threats and one allegation of forcing victims to sit on bottles and inserting wires into orifices. Activists alleged that police sometimes beat detainees in transport vehicles rather than in stations or prisons in order to deny abusing persons in government facilities.

Numerous victims of human rights abuses repeatedly named specific police officers as either supervising or using excessive force and/or beating demonstrators, including children. During the year multiple complaints were filed with both police and judicial authorities against these specific officers, who had also had complaints filed against them in previous years. No officer was either suspended or disciplined by year's end, creating the perception of impunity.

The Moroccan government reported that the Laayoune police authorities received nine complaints of police misconduct during the year. The government stated that it had investigated the complaints and found them baseless.

In February Zahra Bassiri, a 14-year-old girl, was arrested after a peaceful demonstration of approximately 50 persons in support of Western Saharan independence, according to the Associated Press. Bassiri stated that police officers began beating her as soon as they put her into a transport van. According to her statement, four policemen threw her on the van floor in order to get a better angle for beating her with their truncheons.

Activists also reported that courts often refused to bring in experts to testify about torture.

Both Moroccan authorities and human rights activists agreed that the Laayoune prison was outdated, overcrowded, and substandard. The Moroccan government stated that the facility, built during the Spanish colonial period, was constructed to accommodate 200 inmates but housed 500 during the year. In August the government broke ground for a new prison, which was scheduled to be completed in 2009. The Moroccan Observatory of Prisons (OMP), a local nongovernmental organization (NGO) that received some financial support from the Moroccan government, had blanket permission from the government to enter all prisons, to inspect prison conditions, and to receive complaints.

The OMP regional office in Laayoune stated that a new prison director decreased overcrowding, improved security by installing metal detectors and cameras to prevent violence, improved access to health care, and created new cells for family visits.

On January 18, prominent proindependence activists, including Brahim Sabbar and Ahmed Sbai, alleged that they were handcuffed, dragged from their cell, and beaten in Laayoune prison.

On October 12, the Moroccan Ministry of Justice (MOJ) announced that it had instituted a new system by which prisoners may register complaints of abuse through the prison system or via the OMP. Complaints are then forwarded to the MOJ and presented by a government attorney to a judge. Prisoners also availed themselves of the OMP's complaint mechanism in which OMP's attorneys pursued cases through the system.

Human rights activists and NGOs claimed that the court system in Laayoune dispensed justice unfairly. Many activists claimed that although they were arrested for political activities, they were officially charged with drug offences. On April 15, Muhammad Tamek, cousin of a well-known Sahrawi activist, was arrested in Assa, allegedly as a warning to his cousin, and subsequently sentenced to four years in prison on drug smuggling charges. He denied any connection to drug smuggling. A Spanish observer at the trial claimed that the proceedings were neither fair nor transparent. According to the observer, several prosecutorial witnesses did not recognize the defendant.

On June 26, the court in Laayoune sentenced Sahrawi activists Abdesalam El-Loumadi, Abdesalam Daidda, Sidi Bahaha, Muhammad Mustapha, Zougham El-Houssein, Moulay Daddah, and Belyazid Lamine to prison terms ranging from 10 months to five years for participating in an unauthorized protest. At certain times during the trial, family members of the defendants were barred from entering the courtroom, although the restrictions were lifted following protests by defense lawyers.

According to activists, police stopped Muhammad Tahlil, president of the Boujdour branch of the ASVDH, on his way to attend the trial. He was allegedly held at a police station for a period of time, then blindfolded and driven to an unknown location where he was stripped and beaten severely. Tahlil was left on the eastern outskirts of Laayoune. The Moroccan government reported that it had investigated this and similar allegations in other cases and found them baseless.

On May 9, Boujdour-based Sahrawi activist and student Sultana Khaya participated in a proindependence demonstration in Marrakech. In the course of police attempts to disperse participants, she was injured and subsequently lost an eye. Khaya and Sahrawi human rights activists, including the Moroccan Association for Human Rights (AMDH), alleged that her injuries were a direct result of a police beating. The government maintained that she fell and injured herself on the ground.

According to Amnesty International (AI), on March 6, two Sahrawi human rights defenders, Brahim Sabbar and Ahmed Sbai, were sentenced to one year in prison on charges of inciting violent protest activities, having led demonstrations in 2005 and 2006 against the Moroccan administration of Western Sahara and for belonging to ASVDH, an unauthorized organization.

AI also reported that on March 6, three other Sahrawis--Ahmed Salem Ahmeidat, Muhammad Lehbib Gasmi, and El-Hafed Toubali--were sentenced to three years in prison for forming a criminal gang and setting fire to a building during demonstrations against the Moroccan administration of Western Sahara. The conviction was based on written statements by police officers who claimed that the defendants confessed their guilt. When the men appeared before an examining magistrate, they denied the charges and stated that they were forced to sign the statements after being subjected to beatings by security force personnel.

On October 8, Sabbar and Sbai briefly appeared before a court in Laayoune and accused of "offending magistrates" because they chanted slogans advocating Sahrawi self-determination at their trial on March 6. They appeared with Ahmeidat, Gasmi, and Toubali, who faced the same charges. All five defendants were expelled from the court by order of the presiding judge shortly after the trial opened because they continued to demand self-determination for Sahrawi persons and to express support for the Polisario. When the defense request that they be brought back to court was rejected, the defense lawyers stated that they were unable to present the defense case. The prosecution asked the judge to apply the law as it stands. On December 17, Ahmed Sbai was released, while Brahim Sabbar remained in prison.

On December 14, police reportedly detained Dahha Rahmouni and Brahim al-Ansari, both members of human rights NGOs, and allegedly beat them in custody. Rahmouni and al-Ansari were released without charge on December 16 after being forced to sign statements they had not read. Police returned the activists' cell phones and car confiscated during the detention, but not al-Ansari's USB drive, which contained personal information.

During the year activists and NGOs alleged that police violated Moroccan law by holding minors for up to 72 hours without informing parents. Activists also claimed that minors were often seized and arrested for short periods of time, during which they were allegedly beaten before being released. On June 16, police arrested 17-year-old Muhammad Boutabaa following a demonstration. He spent six days in custody without being officially charged. The law states that a suspect can only be held for 48 hours, with the possibility of a 24-hour extension at the request of the public prosecutor before being arraigned in court. Boutabaa did not appear before a judge until June 21.

Youths supporting independence were reportedly detained and mistreated. Activists claimed that they were regularly taken into custody, beaten, and released, generally within 24 hours, without being formally arrested or charged.

Police reportedly used excessive force or violence to disperse some proindependence demonstrations, which continued intermittently throughout the year. On May 11, police broke up a demonstration in Laayoune's central square. Four individuals were injured and several arrested. On May 25, Moroccan police disbanded another demonstration, arrested several persons, and searched the homes of some protestors. Moroccan authorities claimed that they did not intervene in any demonstrations until demonstrators became violent and destroyed personal property.

On June 20, after an investigation carried out by the Moroccan government, two police officers responsible for the death of a Sahrawi, Hamdi Lembarki, were sentenced to 10 years in prison. Lembarki died in police custody from wounds received at a 2005 demonstration in Laayoune in support of the independence of Western Sahara.

In 2006 the Urban Surveillance Group, a security group accused of involvement in past abuses, was reorganized, eliminating a police unit and reassigning personnel. Security personnel also received new training, which included a human rights component. The retention of personnel in key roles who allegedly have perpetrated past abuses, however, highlighted continuing problems of impunity.

During a November demonstration, ASVDH and CODESA reported that police used excessive force to disperse demonstrators. Police reportedly pulled children by their hair, pushed them into vans, and kicked demonstrators. One activist reported that police tried to take off her clothes and threatened her with rape. The same activist also reported that her daughter was arrested and beaten with batons, wires, and truncheons on the soles of her feet while being transferred to jail. The police also allegedly removed the girl's veil and smock and threatened to remove her clothes.

On November 9, police allegedly beat an 18-year-old student participating in a demonstration. The student reported that approximately seven policemen also beat another boy and threatened to force him to sit on a bottle.

From January 2004 to November 2005, the Equity and Reconciliation Commission (IER), established by the king, investigated egregious human rights violations that occurred between 1956 and 1999 in Morocco and Western Sahara. The IER received approximately 22,000 allegations of violations, many of which concerned the territory. Investigative teams from the IER visited the territory on several occasions during its term.

From January 2004 to November 2005, the IER assessed 16,861 cases. It held public hearings in Morocco and planned for hearings in the territory. Due to internal IER time constraints and to demonstrations in the territory, hearings in Western Sahara did not take place. The IER mandate did not include the disclosure of names of individuals responsible for the violations nor did it include a mechanism for bringing violators to trial. The AMDH criticized the IER for its inability to refer cases to authorities for prosecution and for underreporting the numbers of victims.

During the documentation phase of its work, the Moroccan government identified approximately 63 Sahrawi graves. AMDH, however, claimed that many more Sahrawis died in detention during the years under investigation.

In January 2006 the IER published its final report, which provided a historical context, calculated compensation payments, and outlined recommendations on preventing future abuses.

Both the 1991 settlement plan and the 1997 Houston Accords called for the Polisario to release all remaining Moroccan prisoners of war (POWs) after the parties completed the voter identification process. In 2005, despite the ongoing lack of agreement on voter eligibility, the Polisario released all remaining Moroccan POWs, some of whom reportedly suffered serious physical and psychological health problems due to prolonged detention, abuse, and forced labor.

According to the Polisario, the Moroccan government continued to withhold information on approximately 150 Polisario missing combatants and supporters whom the Polisario listed by name. Morocco formally denied that any Sahrawi former combatants remained in detention. During the year the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) continued to investigate such Polisario claims in addition to Moroccan claims that the Polisario had not fully divulged information on the whereabouts of 213 Moroccan citizens. In a few cases the ICRC found that individuals on the Polisario list were living peacefully in Moroccan territory or in Mauritania.

During the year the Working Group on Forced and Involuntary Disappearances of the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC), in recognition of Morocco's cooperation in resolving cases of missing Algerian and Polisario soldiers, dropped its demand to visit the territory. The total number of unresolved cases in which Morocco was implicated decreased from 249 in 1994 to 58 in November.

Morocco and the Polisario disputed the number of persons in refugee camps. The Moroccan government continued to claim that the Polisario detained 45,000 to 50,000 Sahrawi refugees against their will in camps near Tindouf, Algeria. The Polisario and Algerian government claimed that refugee numbers at Tindouf were much higher, and the Polisario denied holding any refugees against their will.

The UNHCR and the World Food Program appealed regularly to donors for food aid and distributed it to approximately 155,000 in refugee camps. However, because Algeria would not allow a census, and partly out of concern over inflated figures, the UNHCR reduced its planning figure to 90,000 through sampling and satellite imagery analysis. The UNHCR provided supplementary rations to pregnant and lactating women, as well as malnourished children under five years of age.

The UN reported disruptions in the delivery of food aid. Cereals, which accounted for 70 percent of nutrition provided, were not distributed in July.

Local advocacy groups in Western Sahara protested against the treatment of the Sahrawi refugees in the Tindouf camps throughout the year. During a December 14 hearing before the Belgian parliament, Moroccan Sahrawi activists expressed concerns about human rights abuses in Polisario-run camps in Tindouf. Six young former residents of the camps testified that they were taught weapons handling against their will and were taken from their families and sent to Cuba to undergo military training.

On December 11, during meetings at the sixth session of the UNHRC, Moroccan Sahrawi groups accused the Polisario of keeping residents in its camps by force. They also accused the Polisario of embezzling or diverting international funds meant to assist refugees.

In 2004 the UNHCR began a program of Confidence Building Measures (CBMs), highlighted by family visits that allowed individuals to spend five days with long‑separated relatives. In August 2005 the program was halted. In November 2006 the UN resumed family reunion flights after a five-month suspension, and flights were ongoing at year's end. During the year 2,109 Western Saharans participated in the family visit program.

The CBMs also included free-of-charge telephone exchanges between relatives in the territory and refugee camps in Algeria. During the year approximately 24,700 telephone calls were made.

The UNHCR reported that the CBM program, which was dependent on contributions from UN member states, was threatened by a shortage of funds.

Web sites considered controversial, such as those advocating independence, were at times inaccessible.

In October CODESA applied to the Moroccan government for recognition as an official NGO. CODESA claimed that Moroccan authorities adopted measures of pressure and harassment to impede the organization's Constitutive Conference planned for October 7. CODESA reported that the owners of the space in which they had arranged to hold the meeting were pressured by the authorities to withdraw permission. The conference was ultimately canceled. At year's end CODESA's application, sent by registered mail to the local authorities, was still pending before the government, and CODESA chose to take no further steps regarding the issue.

The ASVDH applied to register as an NGO in 2005 but was denied permission by the Moroccan government. Despite two subsequent administrative court decisions in its favor, the government continued to refuse to approve its application.

Both CODESA and ASVDH continued to operate informally, but the lack of legal status prevented them from receiving domestic and international funding and from implementing projects.

The laws and restrictions regarding religious organizations and religious freedom in the territory are the same as those in Morocco. The constitution provides that Islam is the state religion, and that the state provides the freedom to practice one's religion. The Catholic Church continued to operate and minister in the territory.

The Moroccan government and the Polisario restricted movement in areas regarded as militarily sensitive.

Some Sahrawis continued to have difficulty obtaining Moroccan passports, although the Moroccan government reissued travel documents to 11 Sahrawis whose passports were confiscated more than three years ago.

Antigovernment activists were generally able to travel internationally. Such activists, however, sometimes faced intimidation. In late 2006 a prominent activist returned to the territory after traveling overseas, whereupon, the activist's brother was beaten as an apparent message to the activist.

The Moroccan penal code imposes stiff fines and prison terms on individuals involved in or failing to prevent trafficking in persons. The territory was a transit region for traffickers of persons.

At year's end, six illegal migrants remained at the UN Bir Lahlou monitoring site, and MINURSO was coordinating with the International Organization for Migration to return them to their countries of origin.

On July 31, the Moroccan government reported that two illegal migrants were killed and two seriously injured while trying to break through a security system in Laayoune. Authorities stated that 37 sub-Saharan persons attempted to break through the surveillance system despite warning shots fired by security forces, and 26 were arrested. In July the Moroccan government launched an investigation, but at year's end the results had not been made public.

The Moroccan labor code applied in the Moroccan‑controlled areas of the territory. Moroccan unions were present in those areas but were not active.

There were no known strikes, other job actions, or collective bargaining agreements during the year. Most union members were employees of the Moroccan government or state‑owned organizations. These individuals were paid 85 percent more than their counterparts in Morocco as an inducement to relocate to the territory. The Moroccan government exempted workers from income and value‑added taxes.

The Moroccan labor code prohibited forced or bonded labor, including by children, and there were no reports that such practices occurred.

Regulations on the minimum age of employment were the same as in Morocco. Child labor did not appear to be a problem.

The minimum wage and maximum hours of work were identical to those in Morocco. In practice, however, during peak periods, workers in some fish processing plants worked as many as 12 hours per day, six days per week, which was well beyond the 10-hour day, 44-hour week maximum stipulated in the Moroccan labor code. Occupational health and safety standards were the same as those in Morocco and enforcement was rudimentary, except for a prohibition on the employment of women in dangerous occupations.