UN body deemed Sultana's house arrest arbitrary

The UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention has ruled in favour of the two Saharawi sisters Sultana and Luara Khaya. 

Published 07 March 2023

The international legal team for Sultana Khaya will hold a webinar (on this Zoom link) on 21 March 2023, at 10am EST / 4pm CET to discuss the Working Group’s opinion and paths forward for political prisoner advocacy in Western Sahara.  The webinar will feature the legal team’s members and the Khaya sisters.

In a recently published decision, the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, ruled in favour of the two Saharawi sisters Sultana and Luara Khaya. The statement - now released on the UN website - is dated 24 January 2023. 

The Khaya sisters were held under de facto house arrest by Morocco from 19 November 2020 and 1,5 years onwards. 

CNN Global previously published an op-ed by Sultana describing the unspeakable injustices committed against the sisters in the period. Sultana’s international legal team submitted a petition to the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, as well as an urgent appeal to the UN Special Rapporteurs on Torture, Human Rights Defenders, and Violence Against Women.  

“Morocco has routinely denied that the Khaya sisters were ever under house arrest. But the UN has undoubtedly, with stark criticism of Morocco, seen through this fabricated narrative, which has been documented by organizations around the world", Tone Sørfonn Moe, lead counsel for the Sultana Khaya expained.  

The Khaya sisters’ plight has been widely recognized by the U.S. Department of State and numerous independent, impartial, and highly reputable international human rights organizations, including the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights., Amnesty InternationalHuman Rights Watch, Front Line DefendersRFK Human Rights, and Right Livelihood. For her activism, Sultana was a finalist for the European Parliament’s 2021 Sakharov Prize. She also received the Citizenship for Human Rights Prize in March 2021 and the  Esther Garcia Award in March 2022.

The UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention found Sultana and Luara’s detention to be arbitrary, or without a legal basis, in several respects. In particular, the Working Group found that the Khaya sisters were “deprived of their liberty on discriminatory grounds, because of their status as Sahrawis and their political opinions in favor of the self-determination of Western Sahara.”

Jared Genser, former international counsel to Sultana Khaya, noted, “This type of discrimination has been repeatedly highlighted in cases of Sahrawis against Morocco. There are other strong trends in these cases that are also present in the Khaya sisters’ case – denials of due process, arrests without warrants, denial of access to the courts, torture, and sexual violence.”

In addition to finding the Khaya sisters’ detention arbitrary on discriminatory grounds, the Working Group also found that the Khaya sisters were never provided an opportunity to challenge the lawfulness of their detention, they were denied their due process rights, and Luara was detained for exercising her rights to freedom of opinion and expression and freedom of assembly and association. The Working Group also noted the psychological, physical, and sexual violence perpetrated against the Khaya sisters and family during the de facto house arrest.

Stephanie Herrmann, former lead counsel for Sultana Khaya, noted, “The Khaya sisters have long faced persecution for their political views and affiliations. If the Government of Morocco were peace-loving and democratic, it would not respond with such brutality to freedom of expression. We welcome the Working Group’s decision, which recognizes lawless abuse against the Khaya sisters.”

Mads Andenas, KC, the former UN Chair-Rapporteur for Arbitrary Detention and international counsel to Sultana, said, “Although the Working Group’s decision is a strong victory for Sultana, Luara, and other Sahrawi human rights activists, we remain deeply concerned about Luara’s fate. Morocco must continue to be reminded that the world is watching.”

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