Imprisoned Saharawi student activist on hunger strike
6576fa80557c6_Screenshot 2023-12-11 at 12.49.51

A Saharawi activist in Moroccan prison last week initiated an open hunger strike. 

Published 11 December 2023

Read the story in Arabic here. 

اقرأ القصة كاملة هنا بالعربية" 

تحديث حتى 11 ديسمبر 2023: أنهى الكنتاوي إضرابه عن الطعام اليوم، بعد أسبوع تقريبًا. وجاء قرار إنهاء الإضراب المفتوح عن الطعام بعد إبلاغ الكنتاوي بأنه سيتم نقله إلى المستشفى لتلقي العلاج.

Update as of December 12th, 2023: Elkantawi ended his hunger strike today, after almost a week. The decision to end the open hunger strike came after Elkantawi was told he was to be transferred to the hospital to receive treatment.

One of five imprisoned Saharawi students last week began a hunger strike in protest over the poor conditions they are facing in a Moroccan jail. 

The group of imprisoned students, also referred to as the Student Group or Group of El Uali, was arrested for its student activism in the university cities of Morocco (read report, “Imprisoned Students”).  Four of the members of the group are still in jail serving 10-year sentences, where they have been since 2016. A fifth was arrested in 2019, serving a 12-year sentence. 

The UN already in 2019 called for the immediate release of the students. These are Abdelmoula El Hafidi, Mohammed Dadda, Elkantawi Elberu and Aziz El Ouahidi, all sentenced to 10-years, and Al-Hussein Al-Bashir Ibrahim, sentenced to 12-year. 

In prison, the students continue to suffer under inhumane conditions, subjected to reprisals for their activism and for their cooperation with the UN. In response, the students regularly conduct hunger strikes, serving as their last and only source of protest. On 6 December 2023, imprisoned student Elkantawi Elbeur commenced on an open hunger strike decrying medical neglect and demanding treatment. 

Arrested back in 2016, 11 of the imprisoned students were released in January 2019 after having finished their prison sentence of 3 years. All of them continue to advocate for the immediate release of their friends, attempting to alert the outside world of the deplorable situation of the imprisoned students. 

Essalek Baber, former imprisoned student activist, informs that Elkantawi Elbeur in August was suddenly transferred from Bouzairkarn prison to a new prison, Oudaya prison. The transfer was made without any form of prior warning and neither Elkantawi nor his family was informed of the reasons. One day after the transferal, Elkantawi was surprised when he was taken to the Court of Appeal in Marrakech to serve as a witness in a trumped-up case brought against a group of students, known for their support for the right to self-determination of the people of Western Sahara. Baber explains that Elkantawi was insulted and harassed by the guards and physically abused by the guards, who were pressing his hands around the handcuffs he had been forced to wear. 

The released student activist Brahim Mouyssaih, informs that Elkantawi Elbeur was transferred back to Bouzairkarn prison late November. Upon arrival, he was placed together with inmates who were sick and that he later started to have symptoms. Moussayih relays that news have been circulating on social media that inmates in Bouzairkarn prison have contracted tuberculosis, and that this information has been verified by various sources both within and outside the prison. Moussayih informs that Elkantawi is showing clear symptoms of tuberculosis with severe chest pains and shortness of breath. 

Despite requests for medical follow up, no doctor has examined Elkantawi and after undertaking a warning hunger strike on 4 December, Elkantawi embarked on an open hunger strike on 6 December protesting medical neglect. 

The case of the Student Group is a clear example of how Morocco subjects victims to reprisals for their cooperation with the UN and how it continues to ignore UN decisions. On 8 December, 37 organizations representing Saharawi civil society issued a statement opposing Morocco’s bid for the UN Human Rights Council Presidency 2024, pointing to Morocco's deteriorating human rights record, occupation and colonization of their homeland, failure to cooperate with the UN mechanisms and its targeting and harassment of human rights defenders, journalists and others for their cooperation with the UN. The letter of Saharawi civil society is open for sign-on on a rolling basis by all organizations wishing to support the campaign until the election expected to be held in January 2024.  

Back in February, the imprisoned students Abdelmoula El-Hafidi and Al-Hussein Al-Bachir Ibrahim also resorted to the last avenue of protest by undertaking hunger strikes in response to inhumane treatment whilst held in Ait Melloul prison. Embarking on the hunger strike in February 2023, the students demanded to be transferred to prisons in Western Sahara where their families reside. Morocco ignored the calls of the students and as retaliation, transferred them to prisons even further away from Western Sahara in the city of Asfi. The hunger strike and inhumane prison conditions was decried by UN Special Rapporteur on human rights defender Mary Lawlor in her communication of 24 May 2023 (Al Mar 2/2023).

Brahim Mouyssaih informs that following the deadly earthquake in Morocco in September 2023, clearly felt by the chained-up students, Al-Hussein Al-Bachir Ibrahim was prohibited from making phone calls and isolated from the outside world for more than two weeks, with clear instructions from the prison administration to not inform his family of his disastrous conditions. The health of El-Hafidi is according to his family deteriorating quickly in response to malnutrition, poor prison conditions and multiple hunger strikes. El-Hafidi is similarly not given any form of medical attention.  In November, also Aziz El Uahidi embarked on a warning hunger strike in response to arbitrary being deprived of his right to study. 

In 2019, the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention concluded that the imprisonment of the Saharawi students was illegal, requesting the immediate release of Abdelmoula El Hafidi, Mohammed Dadda, Elkantawi Elberu and Aziz El Ouahidi. Morocco continues to ignore this decision and have subjected the students to reprisals in response to their cooperation with the UN Working Group. The case of Al-Hussein Al-Bashir Ibrahim is closely linked to the case of the Student Group, and his arrest and his imprisonment received stark critique by the UN Special Rapporteur in a communication of 7 July 2020 (Al MAR 2/2020, see also Al Mar 5/2020 and Al Mar 2/2023). The case of Al-Hussein was also included in the report of Special Rapporteur on human rights defenders Mary Lawlor in her report on the long-term detention of human rights defenders.

In December 2022, a complaint to UN experts was submitted on behalf of 10 imprisoned Saharawi students by the Norwegian legal clinic Jussbuss, the National Union of Students in Norway and the Norwegian Support Committee on Western Sahara, decrying clampdown on Saharawi student activists, urging the UN experts to take immediate steps to ensure the safety of the imprisoned students and the implementation of the UN decision demanding their release. Submitting the complaint, former president of Jussbuss, Ole Martin Juul Slyngstadli stated, “For most people, the situation of the students is unimaginable. They are imprisoned, tortured and stripped of fundamental human rights; simply because they try to take advantage of rights many of us take for granted”. The complaint is still pending treatment by the UN experts. 

Western Sahara is a non-self-governing territory that has been partially occupied by Morocco for 47 years. Sahrawi human rights defenders advocating for social justice and activists who demand the celebration of a long-promised UN referendum on self-determination for Western Sahara are often charged with violent crimes, tortured into signing confessions and given long prison sentences, effectively ending or severely limiting their advocacy work.


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