Morocco’s top court is examining the case of 19 Sahrawi men, imprisoned since 2010 after violent clashes with the police. A verdict is expected on November 25, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International said on Sunday.
The Cassation Court reviewed a lower-court ruling on November 04, of the incident that sparked the case, the dismantlement by Moroccan security forces of a protest encampment in GdeimIzik near El-Ayoun, in Moroccan-controlled Western Sahara.
The men are serving sentences of 20 years to life for responsibility for the deaths of 11 security force members during clashes after security forces dismantled the camp.
The defendants were convicted first in a military court in 2013 and in a civilian appeals court in 2017, after trials that were marred by torture allegations.
The verdicts heavily leaned on confessions that the defendants have challenged.
“The Cassation court is the last chance to put the GdeimIzik trial back on the right track,” said Eric Goldstein, acting Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch.
“Everyone – the defendants, the slain policemen and their families – deserve real justice, based on a trial that was fair and seen to be fair.”
On November 8, 2010, Moroccan security forces moved to dismantle the GdeimIzik encampment, about 6,500 tents that Sahrawis had erected a month before to protest their social and economic conditions in Moroccan-controlled Western Sahara.
The violent confrontation in the camp and in nearby El-Ayoun killed 11 Moroccan security officers; some hit by cars, others slain with knives or artisanal swords. At least one officer’s throat was cut, the written judgment of the 2017 trial stated.
In retaliation, Moroccan security forces repeatedly beat and abused people they detained in the immediate aftermath.
Twenty-five Sahrawi men were later charged with forming a criminal gang and participating in or being in complicity with violence against security forces “leading to death with intent,” among other charges.
The court relied almost entirely on their confessions to police, or statements implicating other defendants, to convict them, without seriously investigating claims that the defendants had signed their confessions and statements under torture.
The torture allegations included severe beatings, some while suspended by the wrists and knees, sexual assault including rape with an object, and pulling out fingernails and toenails.
The UN Committee Against Torture found in 2016, in a case brought before it concerning one of the defendants, Naâma Asfari, that Morocco had failed to investigate torture allegations and that its military court had relied on a statement extracted through torture.
“The courts should have investigated the defendants’ allegations of torture promptly and not in seven years,” said Amna Guellali, Amnesty International’s Deputy Director for the Middle East and North Africa.
The Cassation Court, whose verdict is expected by November 25, can void a verdict, as it did in 2016, and order a retrial.
Otherwise, the 2017 verdict of the appeals court will be deemed definitive, leaving no option other than a royal pardon to free the defendants before they complete their terms. (Source: HRW)