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Allow free expression in Western Sahara, says Human Rights Watch as talks on disputed region resume

(HRW/IFEX) - The following is a Human Rights Watch press release:

Morocco: Allow Free Expression in Western Sahara
Talks on Disputed Region Resume in New York

(New York, January 7, 2008) - Negotiations on the future status of Western Sahara should be accompanied by serious commitments by the Moroccan government to respect freedom of expression in that territory, Human Rights Watch said today. The third round of UN-brokered talks between Morocco and the Polisario Front resumes on January 7, 2008 in Manhasset, New York.

Human Rights Watch recently concluded a two-week mission to Western Sahara and the refugee camps in Algeria controlled by the Polisario, the independence movement of Western Sahara's indigenous Sahrawi people, to document human rights conditions in both places. Moroccan authorities bar most activities they consider advocacy for an independent Western Sahara, invoking provisions of Moroccan law that criminalize attacks on the country's "territorial integrity."

"Rabat claims the vast majority of the Sahrawi people favors Moroccan sovereignty in Western Sahara," said Sarah Leah Whitson, director for the Middle East and North Africa for Human Rights Watch. "This claim would be more convincing if Morocco stopped muzzling those who peacefully advocate for an independent Western Sahara."

Residents of what Morocco terms "the Southern Provinces" who publicly but peacefully agitate in favor of independence for the Western Sahara, or even in favor of a referendum that includes independence as an option, face administrative and police harassment and, on occasion, torture and imprisonment after unfair trials. Authorities refuse to legalize associations or public assemblies they consider pro-independence, and the police use excessive force to break up sit-ins and rallies.

"The taboo on debating the Western Sahara issue undermines the real progress Morocco has made elsewhere on human rights," said Whitson. "People should have the same right to call for independence that they have to advocate Moroccan sovereignty."

Human Rights Watch takes no position for or against independence for Western Sahara or on Morocco's autonomy plan for the region. It urges states to respect their obligations under international human rights law, including the rights to peaceful expression, assembly and association.

Morocco, which annexed most of Western Sahara in the 1970s as Spain ended its colonial administration in that vast desert territory, is proposing that the region have a measure of autonomy under Moroccan sovereignty. The Polisario (formally known as the Popular Front for the Liberation of Saguia el Hamra and Rio de Oro) insists that a referendum for the people of the region be conducted that includes the option of independence. The United Nations classifies Western Sahara as a "non-self-governing territory."

Moroccan authorities have said their proposed autonomy plan is a bold and generous initiative to satisfy the aspirations of the region's population. However, in conversations with Human Rights Watch, officials made clear that under the plan, advocacy for independence (or for a referendum that includes independence as an option) will continue to be seen as an illegal attack on Morocco's "territorial integrity."

"Stopping people from debating one of the core issues concerning their future would overshadow any advances provided by Morocco's autonomy plan," said Whitson.

Human Rights Watch conducted a research mission from November 2 to November 13 to the Moroccan-administered portions of Western Sahara and to the Polisario-administered refugee camps in Tindouf, Algeria. The camps house tens of thousands of Sahrawis who fled the Moroccan-administered zone during Polisario-Moroccan fighting that lasted from 1975 until a 1991 UN-brokered ceasefire.

The researchers met in the Moroccan-administered areas with the governor of El-Ayoun and other officials, victims of human rights abuses, lawyers, human rights organizations, journalists, and victims of violence perpetrated by protesters. The Human Rights Watch delegation was able to move about freely; however, plainclothes police openly and frequently monitored their movements.

The researchers were also able to move about freely in the refugee camps in Algeria, where they interviewed Polisario officials, ordinary citizens, and representatives of nongovernmental and international organizations. They also interviewed victims of Polisario abuses.

Human Rights Watch will publish a report on the mission this year.

For more of Human Rights Watch's work on Western Sahara, please see:
- Letter from Human Rights Watch to Morocco's minister of justice on mistreatment of human rights activists, December 2007:
- Letter from Human Rights Watch to King Mohammed VI of Morocco on the trial of Sahrawi human rights defenders in the Western Sahara, December 2005:
- Human Rights Watch report, "Keeping It Secret: The United Nations Operation in the Western Sahara," October 1995:

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