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In Morocco, Sahrawi political activists imprisoned after unfair trials

Morocco should address the cases of political activists imprisoned after unfair trials, Human Rights Watch said in a letter today [9 September 2014], to Government Chief Abdelilah Benkirane. The government should address unfair trials of civilians in both military and civilian courts even as it moves toward ending military court jurisdiction over civilians.

Human Rights Watch highlighted the case of Abdeslam Loumadi, a Sahrawi from El-Ayoun, in a civilian court. The court did not investigate Loumadi's allegations that the police tortured him during interrogation. The court then convicted him on the basis of a statement to the police that he repudiated as false and said he did not sign. His case followed a pattern in which courts are convicting defendants using evidence that may have been obtained under torture or ill-treatment.

“It's good that Morocco seems ready to end military court jurisdiction over civilians,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “But whether military or civilian, the courts can't deliver justice if they ignore allegations that officials tortured the defendant into confessing.”

In another example, 21 other Sahrawis, including some human rights activists, are serving long prison terms for their alleged role in killing security force members as those forces dismantled a protest camp erected in Gdeim Izik, in the disputed Western Sahara. A military court convicted them in 2013 on the basis of their contested pretrial “confessions” to police, after the court failed to conduct a serious inquiry into their allegations of torture.

On July 23, 2014, Morocco's lower house of parliament unanimously adopted a number of reforms to the code of military justice. They still require approval by the upper house before they become law.

One of the provisions of the Code of Criminal Procedure that undermines the rights of defendants in civilian courts is article 290, which allows the courts, in cases involving offenses with penalties of less than five years in prison, to presume the trustworthiness of statements prepared by the judicial police unless the defendant can prove otherwise.

In July, the El-Ayoun Appeals Court upheld the conviction of Loumadi, who has frequently participated in attempts to demonstrate for self-determination for Western Sahara despite a ban on such public protests, on charges that included participating in an “armed gathering” and attacking police agents.

Human Rights Watch urged Moroccan authorities to set aside the verdicts in both cases or grant new civilian trials in which no contested statement made to the police is admitted into evidence until the court has thoroughly investigated any complaints of torture or falsification made by the defendants.

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