Renowned Saharawi political prisoner 'disappeared' after covid-19 exposure

Four days after telling his daughter that he had shared cell with a probable covid-19 patient, Elhafed disappeared. For three weeks, no one has heard from the Saharawi political prisoner.

Published 02 November 2020

No one has heard from the renowned Saharawi political prisoner and human rights defender Yahya Mohamed Elhafed Iaazza for three weeks. 

Fatou Yahya appeals for the liberation of his father, Yahya Mohamed Elhafed Iaazza. 

The now 54-year-old was in 2008 tried and sentenced to 15 years by a Moroccan court. Earlier this month he told his daughter Fatou that on October 9th, a prisoner suffering from covid-19 had been placed together with him in his small cell in Bouzairkarn Prison in Southern Morocco, where they both spent over 24 hours in close proximity. On October 13th Elhafed Iaazza was purportedly taken to an isolation cell. Since then, he has not communicated with his family, and prison authorities have refused to provide information about his whereabouts or his health.

His family and representative are concerned that his asthma and other pre-existing conditions might put him at risk for severe illness.

“Whatever the reason of a detention; it does not deprive an individual of his or her humanity”, said Elhafed Iaazza’s daughter, Fatou Elhafed Iaazza. “My father is still a human being, with an inherent right to life. No individual should arbitrarily be deprived of their life nor be placed in a situation that endangers their right to life. For 20 days, we have received no news about my father. We do not know whether he is dead or alive…”

Tone Sørfonn Moe, Elhafed Iaazza’s Oslo-based international legal representative, stated that “Yahya Mohamed Elhafed Iaazza has been imprisoned simply in response to having expressed a dissenting view, and he should therefore immediately be released from prison. This becomes ever more urgent in light of how he could have been exposed to covid-19”.

In April of 2020 Amnesty International issued an appeal calling for Morocco to release all detained journalists and peaceful protesters held in the country’s overcrowded jails and prisons, especially those with underlying medical conditions. The same month, 27 Saharawi NGOs also issued a joint appeal calling for the release of all Saharawi political prisoners - a total of 38 prisoners - in light of the current covid-19 crisis. While Morocco pardoned 5654 prisoners at the start of the pandemic, it did not release political prisoners. covid-19 spread quickly throughout the Moroccan jails, with four prisons reporting cases by April and a single prison detecting 300 cases. Activists working on prison rights say that the coronavirus has spread rapidly due to extreme overcrowding and unhygienic conditions in many Moroccan prisons, including Bouzairkarn Prison where Elhafed Iaazza and other Sahrawi political prisoners are held.

Elhafed Iaazza is known as the “father” of Sahrawi political prisoners for taking young activists under his wing when they first arrive in prison and helping them to survive the tough conditions. His family says that he suffers from ill health, including asthma, rheumatism and the effects of long-term hunger strikes, including one that lasted 62 days, in protest of his arbitrary detention and torture, as well as the inhumane treatment and systematic racial discrimination that he and other Sahrawi political prisoners suffer. 

Elhafed Iaazza was convicted for having organized a demonstration that led to the death of a Moroccan police officer at a protest that took place on 27 of February 2008 in the city of Tan Tan, in Southern Morocco. Yahya Mohamed was however not present at the demonstration. The main evidence used against him was a signed confession, which he has said was obtained under torture. His lawyers say he was denied the legal right to present evidence that would have proven his innocence. Citing numerous irregularities at Elhafed Iaazza’s trial, in 2009 Amnesty called for his release

Elhafed Iaazza is one of many Sahrawis who are targeted by Morocco, through arbitrary detention and judicial harassment, for their activism on Western Sahara, a non-self-governing territory south of Morocco and north of Mauritania that has been occupied by Morocco for almost 45 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. The arbitrary detention of Saharawi human rights defenders have been widely documented by the United Nations human rights mechanisms, particularly by the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, whom has found that Saharawi´s advocating in favour of self-determination is subjected to discriminatory practices in breach of the equality of human rights. 

On October 30, the UN Security Council voted to continue with its peacekeeping mission in Western Sahara, known as MINURSO, but refused to grant it a human rights monitoring mandate despite numerous reports of human rights violations by Morocco against the Sahrawi population and a practical ban on international human rights monitors and media in the territory. 


Yahya Mohamed Elhafed Iazza

  • Born in 1966, Elhafed Iaazza is 64 years old, married and with three children. He is a prominent Saharawi human rights defender known as the «father» of Saharawi political prisoners.
  • He was arrested 29 February 2008 in Tan Tan following a demonstration held on 27 February 2008 in conjunction with the celebration of the national day of Western Sahara. Yahya Mohamed did not attend the demonstration himself and his arrest came in direct response to his human rights activism as a Saharawi supporting the right to self-determination for the people of Western Sahara. Yahya Mohamed was one of the most prominent activists in the town of Tan Tan; serving as the president of the branch of the local human rights group CODESA. In his work, he was active in cases of political prisoners and former victims of torture.
  • Upon his arrest, Yahya Mohamed says that he was subjected to violent torture; during which time he was held isolated from the outside world and forced to sign confessions, later used against him as the main criminal evidence.
  • Yahya Mohamed was charged with being responsible for having organized the demonstration held on 27 February 2008, in which had led to the death of a Moroccan police officer. Yahya Mohamed was not present at the demonstration held, but was nevertheless held responsible for having organized the demonstration and the events that occurred.
  • He was sentenced to 15 years in prison by the first instance on 9 October 2008, on the basis of confessions signed under torture. At trial his defence was not allowed to call witnesses on his behalf. On 24 June 2009, the verdict rendered against Yahya Mohamed was confirmed by the appeals court. Prior to the verdict of the Appeals Court, Amnesty International issued a call for his release.
  • He has pre-existing conditions: he suffers from asthma and rheumatism, making him vulnerable to a serious case of COVID-19. He also suffers from the debilitating physical effects of multiple hunger strikes; with the longest lasting 62 days. Until this day, Yahya Mohamed continues to be subjected to gross medical neglect.
  • He is currently held in the Moroccan prison Bouzairkarn, located in the South of Morocco.

Other cases of concern
The latest developments in the case of Yahya Mohamed fall in line with the continuous and systematic racial discrimination and punishment of Saharawi political prisoners, continuing throughout their detention, as also recently witnessed in other cases: 

  • Two of the members of the so-called Student Group were recently transferred within the prison of Bouzaikarn, with one of them, Elkantawi Elbeur, being subjected to physical abuse before being forced to stand for six hours in the courtyard of the prison; under the scorching sun. Their case was treated in an opinion rendered by the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, Opinion No. 67/2019, holding that their detention is arbitrary and that the students should be released. Still, Morocco has not implemented the decision. On the contrary, the young students have been subjected to acts of reprisals in response to their appeal made to the United Nations (see A/HRC/45/16).
  • On 21 October, a young Saharawi student Al-Hussein Al-Bachir Ibrahim was sentenced to 12 years in prison by the Appeal courts. Prior to this, his case had been treated in a joint communication issued 7 July 2020 by the UN Special Procedures (Jal Mar 2/2020), expressing serious concerns into the lack of evidence, usage of confessions signed under torture as evidence and evidence that Hussein had solely been imprisoned due to his activism.
  • The continued isolation and ill-treatment of Khatri Dadda, a 21-year old Saharawi activist and journalist recently sentenced to a total of 20 years in prison, remains of great concern, according to a joint communication issued 21 July 2020 by the UN Special Procedures (JAL Mar 3/2020). In the communication, the UN Special Procedures also expressed serious concerns into the violation of the right to due process.
  • The continued isolation of several of the Gdeim Izik prisoners similarly remains of great concern, after having been held under arbitrary detention for nearly a decade following their arrest in conjunction with the dismantlement of the Gdeim Izik protest camp in the occupied territories of Western Sahara in November 2010. The case of the Gdeim Izik prisoners have amongst other been treated in a joint communication issued by the UN Special Procedures in July 2017 (AL Mar 3/2017) with the Special Rapporteurs expressing their concern over the violation of the right to due process and evidence showing that the activists had solely been arrested and imprisoned in response to their human rights activism and participation in the peaceful protest.

Morocco continues to ignore calls coming from human rights organizations and from the United Nations human rights mechanisms to release Saharawi political prisoners. Former president-rapporteur of the UN Working Group Arbitrary Detention, professor Mads Andenæs, states “In the course of my visit with the Gdeim Izik prisoners during the country visit of the Working Group in 2013, it became clear that Saharawi activists arbitrarily detained suffer from different forms of health problems, some of them a consequence of having been subjected to torture or ill treatment, the inhumane conditions in prison, placing them in acute danger. This is further aggravated by multiple hunger strikes and the lack of medical care. These peaceful activists should immediately be released from prison in light of the imminent threat to their health”. 

UN body requests Morocco to immediately release Western Sahara journalist

In a recent published decision of 1 April 2024, the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention requested the immediate release of the young Saharawi journalist Khatri Dadda.

05 April 2024

The Wolf In Charge of the Lamb

The occupying power Morocco, which sabotages the work of the UN Human Rights Council in occupied Western Sahara, has begun its first session after being elected to preside the Council.  

29 February 2024

​​Morocco elected new president of the UN Human Rights Council

Today, Morocco was elected to chair the UN Human Rights Council. The result generated strong reactions.

10 January 2024

Morocco runs for presidency of UN Human Rights Council

"The credibility of the UN system is at stake", says the Norwegian Support Committee about this week's election of a new presidency of the Human Rights Council. Norwegian organizations are critical of the candidacy.

08 January 2024