UN experts urge Morocco to release imprisoned Sahrawi journalist

On 7 June 2019, videos began to circulate showing Moroccan police brutally beating up a Saharawi journalist in occupied Western Sahara. Today, a UN opinion calling for his release from prison was made public. 

Published 07 February 2021

The UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention has called for the immediate release of the young Saharawi journalist Walid Salek El Batal in a decision made public today. The opinion was issued during the 89th session of the Working Group and can be found here.

El Batal's violent arrest received international attention after a video of the brutal bearing went viral. Human Rights Watch and The Washington Post issued fact-checking reports using open source investigation that debunked the official Moroccan version that justified the arrest by accusing El Batal of being a violent criminal. 

El Batal is currently in prison due to his work as a Saharawi journalist, the UN experts concluded, noting that had he not been a Saharawi, he would not have been imprisoned. In its jurisprudence, the UN Working Group has established a systematic pattern of the arrest and imprisonment of Saharawi activists, finding that Saharawis advocating in favour of self-determination are subjected to discriminatory practices in breach of the equality of human rights.

The Saharawi journalist Walid Salek El Batal currently held in Bouzairkarn prison after having been sentenced to 2 years in prison by a Moroccan court 

Walid Salek El Batal is a former political prisoner working with the Saharawi journalist organization «Smara News». He was arrested on 7 June 2019 when he was on his way to the house of a journalist colleague, Salah Eddine Bassir, who had himself just been released from prison. Walid Salek El Batal was sentenced to two years in prison by the Court of Appeals on 12 November 2019 on the basis of confessions signed under torture. 

As the video of his arrest shows, on his way to the house of Salad Eddine Bassir, Walid and his co-passengers were violently dragged out of their car and assaulted by the Moroccan police. The recording was quickly shared online by Saharawi media outlets and widely seen internationally. 

The UN experts conclude that El Batal was later subjected to torture within the premises of the police station and that he was forced to sign confessions, later used against him as the main piece of evidence. The experts also note that El Batal raised allegations of torture in all successive proceedings and that the Moroccan judge did not respond to them, nor did he initiate any form of investigation. Seriously concerned with the lack of action by the court, the UN experts hold that the Moroccan court was not independent or impartial when addressing El Batal's case, and have thus referred his case to the UN Special Rapporteur on the independence of judges and lawyers. 

“The Working Group on Arbitrary Detention’s decision is not a mere opinion but it is an important step to achieve justice for Saharawis as it reveals the Moroccan systematic policy of targeting Saharawi activists and journalists and troubling discrepancies while Moroccans try to justify violations”, says Mayara Mohamed, journalist and coordinator of Equipe Media. 

“With Walid's case, the non-independence and non-impartiality of the Moroccan judiciary has been proven”, Tone Sørfonn Moe, the international legal representative acting on behalf of Walid Salek El Batal, added. “The time has come to hold Morocco responsible for its breaches of international law as an Occupying Power. Morocco is effectively holding down an entire people, the Saharawi people, with the use of force, and the international community needs to speak out clearly against the torture, abuse and deprivation of liberty currently taking place in the occupied Western Sahara”. 

 

Short summary of the UN opinion 

The UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention found in Opinion No. 68/2020 concerning Walid Salek El Batal that his arrest and continued detention is arbitrary, culminating in numerous breaches of international human rights law. 

The opinion rendered can be summed up as follows: 

Category I: The UN Working Group held that the arrest warrant used against El Batal was not credible and further noted that Morocco violated its obligation to present Walid in front of a judicial organ within due course (48 hours). On this basis, the Working Group found that El Batal's arrest was illegal. 

Category II: The UN Working Group concluded that El Batal was arrested in response to his work as a journalist and his support for the right to self-determination, noting that El Batal was arrested on his way to a reception to report on behalf of the media organization Smara News on the release of a human rights defender and activist for the self-determination of the people of Western Sahara (Salah Eddine Bassir). The Working Group found reason to underscore that there was no justification to limit the freedom of expression in the present case. 

Category III: In the case of El Batal, the Working Group found it proven that he was subjected to torture and that he was forced to sign confessions, and that the judge ignored evidence of torture and failed to initiate an investigation. This led the Working Group to refer the case to the Special Rapporteur on torture, while holding that the use of these confessions constitutes a breach of the presumption of innocence and the absolute prohibition on torture. In addition, the use of confessions allegedly extracted under torture, and the court's decision to ignore these allegations, constituted, in the view of the UN experts, a breach of the right to be tried in front of an independent and impartial tribunal. This led the Working Group to refer the case to the Special Rapporteur on the independence of judges and lawyers. In this decision, the UN experts also found violations of the right to be confronted with evidence and the right to defence. 

Category V: The UN experts held that there is no doubt that the charges faced by El Batal, for which he was convicted and is now in prison, stem from his status as Saharawi and are due to his political opinions in favour of the right to self-determination for the Saharawi people. Had he not been a Saharawi and had not expressed his opinion on the political crisis in Western Sahara, the proceedings in question would not have taken place. 

In view of its findings, the Working Group holds that the detention of Walid is arbitrary. The Working Group calls on the immediate release of Walid, especially in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.

For questions on this case please contact Walid Salek El Batal's international legal representative, Tone Sørfonn Moe from the Norwegian Support Committee for Western Sahara, at tone.s.moe@protonmail.com or the Saharawi journalist organisation Equipe Media at equipemedia2020@gmail.com 

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