Detention of former Saharawi political prisoner found illegal by UN experts

The Saharawi human rights defender Ali Saadouni was illegally imprisoned, unlawfully judged and tortured by Moroccan authorities for putting up Western Sahara flags in a roundabout. This is the conclusion of the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention in a decision published today. 

Published 11 December 2020

The Working Group found that the arrest and detention of the prominent Saharawi activist Mr. Ali Saadouni in 2019 was arbitrary in as much as it violated Articles 3, 6, 7, 9, 10, 19, 20 and 21 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and Articles 2, 9, 14, 19, 21, 22 and 26 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, falling under Category I, II, III and V of its methods. 

The decision (Opinion No. 52/2020) made public today may be found here.

In the decision rendered, the UN Working Group held that: 

  • Saadouni was effectively abducted and tortured, whilst held outside the boundaries of law, with his arrest effectively constituting enforced disappearance.
  • He was arrested due to his activism for human rights and for the right to self-determination for the people of Western Sahara, with the reason for his latest arrest being a demonstration he had participated in the day prior.
  • He was not allowed to talk to his counsel prior to the criminal proceedings. His lawyer was not allowed to question witnesses presented by the Moroccan government, and denied to present witnesses of an exonerating nature. The court case was held behind closed doors.

Perhaps most importantly, the Working Group noted its grave concern relating to the allegations of torture during Saadouni’s initial arrest. The Working Group noted the lack of action of the court and the prosecutor, both during the investigation and the trial; noting that they never ordered a medical examination nor investigation, despite numerous allegations having been raised. The Working Group held that Saadouni had been subjected to torture, in violation of the absolute prohibition as stipulated in the Torture Convention, and referred the case of Ali Saadouni to the Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. 

The Working Group took into account the general situation in Western Sahara and referred to previous opinions rendered illustrating the practices of the Moroccan government; and held that Saadouni had been arrested simply in response to this demonstration; falling within the right to freedom of opinion and expression. The Group referred his case to the Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression. The Working Group found that Saadouni had been arrested and imprisoned in response to him being Saharawi, and held that his detention constituted racial discrimination. 

The Working Group also called on the Moroccan Government to take the necessary steps to remedy the situation of Ali Saadouni, including the right to seek redress. It urged the Morocco to launch an independent investigation into his detention and to hold those responsible accountable. However, the government has so far taken no action in order to implement the decision of the UN Working Group, which has been known for Morocco for about the last two months. 

Rather, the former Saharawi political prisoner Ali Saadouni has, ever since his release from prison on 11 September 2019, been subjected to numerous acts of violence from the Moroccan occupying forces, in addition to threats and intimidations in response to his activism. 

Most lately, on 10 November 2020, Ali Saadouni and his friend Nour Eddin El Aargoubi were abducted and tortured by the Moroccan police and intelligence forces. Both activists were taken around 9pm in the evening and driven out to the desert where they were tortured, before they were left in the desert; forced to walk back to the city. Both activists received threats of future imprisonment and even threats of killings. This incident happened one month after the UN Working Group had reached its conclusion on the Saadouni case, and one month before it was officially published today. 

Picture of Ali Saadouni in the roundabout displaying the flag of Western Sahara on 10 April 2019 in Western Sahara. Saadouni was arrested the next day, on 11 April 2019. He is now released. 

“The central and fundamental reason for all violations and abuse that I have been and continue to be subjected to, is my support for the right to self-determination and independence for my country. As long as my views contradict the story of the occupation regime, repression and imprisonment will be the outcome”, Saadouni told. 

In the opinion rendered, the Working Group refrained from applying the framework of International Humanitarian Law (IHL). “As Western Sahara is under occupation by Morocco, such incidents have to be assessed in light of IHL. Without the application of IHL, it is impossible to explain and document the reason for the arrest and imprisonment of Saadouni and other Saharawi activists. There is a reason why IHL serves as lex specialis – or the specialized law overriding the general law - during times of occupation”, says Tone Sørfonn Moe, international representative on behalf of Ali Saadouni. 

The UN Human Rights Mechanisms have documented widespread human rights abuses against Saharawi activists. The documentation evidences a reality that the Kingdom of Morocco uses all tools possible to deny; currently culminating in the military siege imposed on the occupied territories leading to the alarming persecution of Saharawi activists and journalists trying to uncover the truth. 

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