Algeria-Morocco: Violent clash averted in Western Sahara stand-off

Reading time 3 min.

“I have just lived through one of the most terrifying experiences of my life” renowned Spanish actor Willy Toledo, tells me over the phone in the early hours of Tuesday morning.


He, together with six other international observers had just accompanied 28 Saharawi human rights defenders on their trip back from an international conference [[The Conference – “People’s Right to resist: the case of Sahrawi people” – was held in Algiers from 25th – 27th September.
]] in Algeria to their home in Layoune, Western Sahara, the mineral-rich former Spanish colony controlled by Morocco.

“As we came out of the airport we were surrounded by about 150 policemen” said Toledo. “They eventually let us pass but when we got into town we were confronted by even more police blocking us from getting to the house where a reception had been organised for the activist’s return.”

There was a tense stand-off as hundreds of Saharawi supporters gathered to protect the activists, helping to forge a path to the house. “The police were pushing and shoving us, shouting abuse and spitting on the women” says Toledo breathlessly. “Once we were inside the house they tried to force their way in, beating on the door with batons.”

Although terrifying, Toledo admits that the police had probably been ordered not to use violence. This contrasts with the usual treatment meted out by the authorities to returning Saharawi activists.

Last October seven prominent human rights defenders were arrested in Casablanca airport after returning from a visit to the refugee camps in Algeria where around 165,000 Saharawi have lived in exile for over 35 years. Three of the seven remain in prison awaiting trial by a military tribunal and a possible death sentence if found guilty. Over the last year, scores of other activists who have made the same journey have been beaten by the police on their return home.

At the conference the human rights defenders had been in buoyant mood. After having given their testimony to the audience made up of over 300 delegates from 22 countries they mingled easily, laughing and joking despite the knowledge that in the coming days they might face beatings and arrests.

Forty-year old Ibrahim Brahim Saber, an activist who has been in and out of prison since the age of sixteen was well aware of the risks when he spoke to me in Algiers on Sunday. “I have been beaten and tortured many times and in many ways” he said. “But none of us have chosen this life of struggle. We were born into it.”

Another human rights defender Mohamed Boutaba was keen to show me a photograph of him lying in a pool of blood. He had been participating in a peaceful protest in Layoune in 2006 which had been baton charged by police. He was struck on the head and the force of the blow had left him in a coma for over a month. “Even now my eyesight is not good and the aches in my head often stop me from sleeping” he tells me.

Boutaba, who works for an organisation documenting human rights abuses, also knew violence was likely on his return to Layoune. “You never know,” he shrugs, “I might get struck by the same police baton that broke my skull four years ago.”

At the closing ceremony the mood in the conference hall was one of defiance. A motion passed called on the United Nations to immediately enforce Security Council resolutions requiring the organisation of a free and fair referendum on self-determination in Western Sahara. The motion also reaffirmed the legitimacy of Saharawi people’s right to peaceful resistance against the occupation of their homeland.

With a further 55 Saharawi human rights defenders who participated in the conference due to make the journey back to Layoune this Wednesday and Thursday, more peaceful resistance is inevitable. It can only be hoped that the presence of international observers as well as journalists might persuade the Moroccan authorities not to react with violence.

The Other Afrik  The Other Afrik is an alternative and multi-faceted information source from Afrik-News' panel of experts. Contributions include : opinions, reviews, essays, satires, research, culture and entertainment news, interviews, news, information, info, opinion, africa, african-american, europe, united states, international, caribbean, america, middle east, black, France, U.K.
Stefan Simanowitz
A London-based writer, broadcaster and journalist, Stefan Simanowitz writes for publications in the UK and around the world including the: Guardian, Independent, Financial Times, Washington Times, Global Post, Huffington Post, New Statesman, In These Times, New Internationalist, Prospect, Lancet,, Contemporary Review, Mail & Guardian. He has a background in policy, political strategy and international human rights law and has worked for the European Commission, Liberty and the ANC during South Africa’s first democratic election campaign. He has reported from mass graves in Somaliland and Indonesia, prisons in Cameroon and South Africa, refugee camps in the Sahara desert and he writes on all aspects of global politics. He also has an interest in culture and travel, writing reviews on music, literature, film and theatre and taking photographs to accompany his reviews and reportage.
Support Follow Afrik-News on Google News