At dawn on July 19th,after hours of deliberation, the verdicts were finally delivered in the contentious retrial in Morocco related to the violence in the Gdeim Izik protests of 2010.
The trial is against 24 political prisoners from my homeland of Western Sahara, on charges relating to violent resistance against Moroccan security forces, who in November 2010 brutally dismantled a protest camp set up by Saharawi activists at Gdeim Izik, outside the city of El-Ayoun. Eleven security officers were reported to have been killed.
Eight prisoners received life sentences, eleven more between 20-30 years imprisonment and the rest sentences between 2-6 years.
This is a travesty of justice as the trial was a sham and the prisoners, the families of the prisoners, myself and all those supporting them are totally devastated. It is a very dark day for human rights in Morocco and Western Sahara.
Of course, whoever killed the officers deserves to be punished but the ones that were arrested, were arrested because of their political activities fighting for the independence of Western Sahara from Morocco’s brutal occupation. This is Morocco’s way of punishing Saharawi human rights defenders.
The political activists were held in pre-trial detention for over two years until February 2013 when 23 of them were given sentences ranging from 20 years to life imprisonment.
I was devastated by this result as I am also a political activist in Western Sahara and I was imprisoned for a total of six years, which involved four years of incommunicado detention, a month of solitary confinement and severe physical and psychological torture. I also went into a coma for a month when I contracted tuberculosis.
Four of the detainees are members of my organisation, the Saharawi Association of Grave Victims of Human Rights Violations and many are close friends and comrades. They have already suffered so much and it is unbearable that their sentences are virtually the same as the verdicts that were delivered in 2013.
These verdicts were contested by major human rights organisations like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch for two key points: the defendants were tried in a military court even though they are all civilians and the main ‘evidence’ used against them were confessions allegedly extracted under torture.
In July 2016 the Court of Cassation declared the verdicts null and void following a new law ending military trials for civilians and called for a retrial.
In November 2016, the UN Committee Against Torture condemned Morocco for numerous violations of the Convention Against Torture concerning Naâma Asfari, one of the Gdeim Izik detainees.
The new trial began on 26 December 2016 (deliberately held at Christmas to keep international legal observers away.) It has been postponed several times in January, March, June and July and finally came to a confusing and rancorous end this morning.
The trial has been politically charged from the start. The Moroccan authorities have run a propaganda war, painting the defendants as murderers and terrorists all over the Moroccan mainstream press and social media.
Given the fact that this was a retrial you would expect judicial standards to improve but this time around it has been even worse. In fact it has been catastrophic.
First of all, very few of the families of the prisoners were allowed to attend the trial, along with Saharawi human rights defenders like myself. My organisation applied to legally register in 2005 and this was only granted ten years later in August 2015.
This is pretty meaningless if we are not allowed to carry out our work, which involves monitoring political trials. Thankfully I was able to observe the trial from the third sitting in March.
The court ordered for Moroccan doctors to perform medical examinations on 21 of the defendants to address the allegations of torture, which included rape by an object, sexual assault, as well as the ripping out of fingernails and toenails.
The doctors stated that the scars found on the detainees could have multiple explanations; they couldn’t rule torture out, but it was impossible to say for certain that the detainees had been tortured during their detention. These allegations of torture should have been investigated immediately after the alleged torture had taken place, not seven years later.
Morocco’s penal code states that confessions extracted under torture are inadmissible in court, but allegations of torture are rarely investigated.
The President of the Court displayed a blatant bias between the prosecution and the defence, with the Saharawis questioned much more, even though the case put forward by the prosecution was highly dubious.
There were no autopsy reports at the trial which showed how and when each of the security officers had died and no DNA or fingerprints on the weapons seized. The defendants have no idea which officer they are accused of killing. Essentially there’s virtually no credible proof, witnesses and evidence linking the defendants to the crimes. A video was shown during the trial but it was impossible to identify any of the accused in the camp.
New witnesses representing the families of the security officers who were killed were allowed to speak at the trial and ask questions of the defendants even though they had not been involved in the previous trial and had mysteriously appeared seven years after the alleged crimes.
The Saharawis’ defendants called for witnesses who had actually been at Gdeim Izik, including the Minister of the Interior at the time of the protests, MPs and members of the government, whose evidence would have been vital for the case, but the court refused to invite them.
In May, the defendants and their lawyers decided to boycott the trial as they had had enough of being subjected to fabricated evidence and the total lack of respect for the presumption of innocence until proven guilty.
The atmosphere has been highly charged both inside and outside the court.
Moroccan intelligence drafted in protesters representing the families of the security officers, giving them Moroccan flags and photos of the King, along with an enormous sound system, drowning out and intimidating the nearby Saharawi protesters with political slogans.
I haven’t been able to get involved with the trial in the same way I did in 2013 protesting outside the court, liaising with the families of the prisoners, international observers and the media. I have been forced to take it easy as I had a health scare last year due to the torture I endured in prison. I had to have my left lung removed and the capacity of my right lung has been reduced. Some friends told me not to attend this trial but it’s just too important.
This court case epitomises the occupation we are living under, where the Moroccan authorities try to dehumanise us and there is no justice. No one talks about the thousands of Saharawis who have been killed since Morocco began the occupation in 1975 or about the four Saharawis who died in Gdeim Izik.
This trial is hugely important for the Saharawi people and for justice in Western Sahara and Morocco. The Moroccan authorities cannot defend these grossly unfair verdicts and we will never give up our fight to see justice finally prevail.