26 June 2018 | By Catherine Constantinides – International Climate Activist and Human Rights Defender (@ChangeAgentSA) Member of the Saharawi National Commission for Human Rights
Later this month, Moroccan King Mohamed VI will travel to Nouakchott, Mauritania to participate in the 31st African Union Summit. It will only be the third summit that Morocco has attended since its re-admission to the African Union in early 2017.
Morocco withdrew itself from the African Union (the Organisation of African Unity; OAU) in 1984 to protest against the admission of Western Sahara as a full member of the organization. Morocco’s relationship with Western Sahara is a complicated one. In 1975 Morocco invaded the territory following the withdrawal of the Spanish colonial administration. This move was contested by the Polisario Front, which engaged in armed conflict with the Moroccan government until a ceasefire in 1991.
The Saharawi people have foresworn armed struggle and placed their trust in the United Nations (U.N.) system and international law to resolve the issue. In response, Morocco has repeatedly aggravated the situation and prevented the referendum from being held. The kingdom has also flooded Western Sahara with Moroccan settlers and engaged in widely documented human rights abuses –– including torture, imprisonment and harassment of Saharawis in the occupied territory.
Unfortunately, the international community seems to have turned a blind eye towards Western Sahara and its struggles. Morocco, seizing this opportunity, has placed significant restrictions on freedom of expression and association, particularly around issues of Western Saharan independence. Numerous journalists, publishers, and media activists have been prosecuted for criticizing the Moroccan government, resulting in a climate of fear and self-censorship.
One individual who worked to counteract this epidemic of enforced silence is Mohamed al-Bambary, a media activist with Equipe Media. As the most prominent independent news organization in Western Sahara, Equipe Media and its collaborators have faced significant harassment from the Moroccan authorities for documenting human rights abuses in Western Sahara. Such documentation is precisely what has landed Mr. al-Bambary in prison, where he currently sits serving a six-year sentence.
In September 2011, Mr. al-Bambary filmed violent riots which broke out in the city of Dakhla. Nearly four years later, on August 27, 2015, Mr. al-Bambary entered the Dakhla police station to renew his identification card. Instead of being able to do that he was greeted with handcuffs.
Authorities accused him of participating in the riots four years earlier, a charge that he was not informed of until his trial in October 2015. Mr. al-Bambary was beaten in order to force him to sign a confession that he was not able to read. He was initially sentenced to 12 years in prison at a trial that was closed to the public and where he was forbidden from speaking. An appeal court later reduced his sentence to six years, which was still twice as long as any other individual
sentenced for participating in the riots.
Catherine Constantinides is an independent social commentator. Her views do not necessarily reflect those of Salaamedia.