Human rights defenders beaten at Western Saharan airport

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Four human rights defenders were injured, one seriously, by Moroccan police in Western Sahara after returning home from an international conference in Algiers yesterday. One international observer also suffered a broken finger when police confronted the activists as they came out of the airport in Layoune, the main city in the former Spanish colony now occupied by Morocco.

Twenty five Saharawi activists flew into Layoune on Wednesday evening to be met by a small group of international observers and over one hundred policemen. As the activists came out of the airport terminal the police closed in. “They started shoving, punching and kicking indiscriminately” said one of the observers Carmelo Ramirez, president of the Federation of Institutions in solidarity with the Sahara (FEDISSAH). “One young activist, Mohamed Mayara, was seriously wounded by a blow to the head.” According to Ramirez, Mayara “chose not to go to hospital out of fear” and was instead treated in an ambulance where he received several stitches to his head and lip.

Spanish actor Guillermo Toledo who travelled with the human rights defenders from Algiers was attempting to record the assaults on his mobile phone when he was also targeted. “Several police men jumped on me, pulling me down, kicking and punching me.” He suffered a broken finger.

Saharawi activists have regularly been targeted by Moroccan authorities on their return from abroad and there are growing fears for the next group of 25 Saharawi human rights defenders who are due to fly back to Layoune from Algiers this evening. Commemorations are also being organised for October 8th to mark the first anniversary of the arrest of several prominent human rights defenders who 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 activists – Brahim Dahane, president of ASVDH, Ali Salem Tamek, Vice-President of CODESA, Ahmed Naciri vice president Samara Saharawi Human Rights Committee – are still imprisoned in Sale jail, Rabat awaiting trial by a military tribunal. If found guilty of ‘treason’ they could face a death sentence.

Meanwhile over 20 expert witnesses are expected to give testimony of human rights abuses in occupied Western Sahara to the United Nations Decolonisation Committee in New York next week. Campaigners will gather there to call for the United Nations to immediately enforce Security Council resolutions requiring a referendum on self-determination in Western Sahara. “The ark of history may be long but it always bends towards justice” says Sahawari activist Mohmed Danoun quoting Martin Luther King. “Western Sahara will be free.”

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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.
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