Sahrawi human rights defenders sentenced to year in prison

AMNESTY INTERNATIONAL  Public Statement  AI Index:      MDE 29/004/2007    (Public)
News Service No:   046   8 March 2007Morocco/Western Sahara: 
Amnesty International is seriously concerned about the sentencing on 6 March of two Sahrawi human rights defenders, Brahim Sabbar and Ahmed Sbai, to one year in prison by a court in Laayoune.
The organization believes
that they have been imprisoned for peacefully exercising their rights to
freedom of expression, association and assembly and may therefore be
prisoners of conscience. If this is the case, they should be released
immediately and unconditionally.

The two men were convicted on the basis of charges which included inciting
violent protest activities, specifically demonstrations in 2005 and 2006
against the Moroccan administration of Western Sahara, and belonging to an
unauthorized association, namely the Sahrawi Association of Victims of
Grave Human Rights Violations Committed by the Moroccan State. The
Association, of which Brahim Sabbar is Secretary General and Ahmed Sbai a
member, has been unable to register itself with the Moroccan authorities
due to politically motivated administrative obstacles. The two men were,
however, acquitted of the most serious charges against them, including that
of forming a criminal gang.

The two men, who have been in detention for nearly nine months, appear to
have been targeted for their role in collecting and disseminating
information about human rights violations in Western Sahara, as well as
their public advocacy of the right of the people of the territory to
self-determination. They acknowledge having peacefully participated in
demonstrations against human rights violations by the Moroccan authorities
in Western Sahara, but have denied any involvement in acts of violence.
Brahim Sabbar is also serving a two-year prison sentence, handed down in
June 2006, on the basis of charges which Amnesty International believes
were probably trumped up.

The trial, which reportedly lasted under an hour, took place in less than
dignified circumstances. According to eye-witnesses, there was a heavy
presence of security force officers in and around the court and only a few
of the two men’s relatives and friends were able to gain access to the
courtroom. The rest were refused entry, apparently without explanation.

In addition, the trial was marked by the two defendants’ refusal to answer
any questions or make any other utterance in court, continuing a protest
gesture they had begun in a trial hearing on 6 February 2007. Their defence
team of nine lawyers had withdrawn from the case in solidarity on the same
day and issued a declaration explaining that the action was in protest at
the Moroccan authorities’ apparent failure to open an investigation into
ill-treatment to which the defendants say they were subjected in prison on
19 January 2007 and during previous transfers to and from the court. The
court appointed a substitute defence lawyer at a hearing on 20 February.

Three other Sahrawis, Ahmed Salem Ahmeidat, Mohamed Lehbib Gasmi and
El-Hafed Toubali, were sentenced to three years’ imprisonment by the same
court on 6 March, after being convicted of forming a criminal gang and
setting fire to a building in the context of demonstrations against the
Moroccan administration of Western Sahara. The conviction was based on
written statements by police officers in which they said that the
defendants had confessed their guilt. When the three men later appeared
before an examining magistrate, they denied the charges and said they had
been forced to sign the statements after being subjected to beatings by
security force personnel.

Dozens of Sahrawis have been charged with violent conduct and detained
after being arrested during or after demonstrations in Western Sahara in
2005 and 2006. Many have alleged that they were tortured or ill-treated,
either to force them to sign confessions, to intimidate them from
protesting further or to punish them for demanding the right to
self-determination for the people of Western Sahara or for brandishing
visible signs of their support for the Polisario Front, which calls for an
independent state in the territory and operates a self-proclaimed
government-in-exile in refugee camps in south-western Algeria. Some of
those detained were released following royal pardons in March and April
2006. Others remain in detention serving prison sentences or awaiting
trial. Trials of Sahrawi protestors have been marred by concerns related to
their fairness. In particular, evidence used to convict them has often been
tainted with unexamined claims of torture or ill-treatment and defendants
have generally not been permitted to call defence witnesses.

Amnesty International calls on the Moroccan authorities to take concrete
measures to ensure that the rights of all Sahrawis to freedom of
expression, association and assembly are fully respected and that Sahrawi
human rights defenders, in particular, can collect and disseminate
information and views on human rights issues without fear of prosecution,
harassment or intimidation. Such rights are enshrined in international law,
notably the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which
Morocco is a state party, and the UN Declaration on the Right and
Responsibility of Individuals, Groups and Organs of Society to Promote and
Protect Universally Recognized Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms,
adopted by the UN General Assembly on 9 December 1998.

For further information on the case of Brahim Sabbar and Ahmed Sbai and the
ongoing concerted campaign of repression against Sahrawi human rights
defenders, please see Amnesty International’s public statement
Morocco/Western Sahara: Stop the judicial harassment of Sahrawi human
rights defenders, issued on 5 February 2007:  <>

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