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Western Sahara activist 'beaten' after talking to BBC

Refugee camps in Algeria
Many Western Saharans live in sprawling refugee camps in the Algerian desert

By Sam Bagnall
BBC News

A human rights campaigner from the disputed territory of Western Sahara says he was beaten by Moroccan police after giving an interview to the BBC.

Rachid Sghir and his colleagues were aware of the risks they ran by being interviewed for our TV documentary series Tropic of Cancer.

But he wanted to be identified speaking to us openly on camera to highlight what he says is the ongoing mistreatment of his fellow Saharawi people.

We had arranged the interview via text message. We were told to wait at a petrol station on the outskirts of town after dark.

A car pulled up and flashed its lights - the signal to follow them through the back streets to a Saharawi safe-house.

Rachid Sghir
We can't campaign for independence openly. We can't even raise the Saharawi flag or talk about the history of the Saharawi people
Rachid Sghir

My colleague, presenter of Tropic of Cancer Simon Reeve, was shown into the safe house with the film crew.

"What we have to say about the Moroccans is that they came to this country and occupied it in 1975," Sghir told Reeve.

"We're still asking for our independence, no more, and no less. There's a lot of oppression here. The secret police are everywhere. There's no freedom of speech."

Sghir said he had previously been beaten by the Moroccan police while trying to attend a human rights conference in Laayoune, the main town of Western Sahara.

"We can't campaign for independence openly. We can't even raise the Saharawi flag or talk about the history of the Saharawi people," he said.

Police violence

Our team had been followed by plain clothes officers from the Moroccan security services ever since arriving in Western Sahara. But that night, we believed we had shaken them off.

Despite the precautions, news of the meeting appears to have leaked.

Days after the Tropic of Cancer team had left Western Sahara, Sghir says he was detained by the Moroccan police, questioned about his activities including the interview with the BBC and severely beaten.

Rachid Sghir shows bruises to his face and buttocks
Rachid Sghir says his bruises were caused by a Moroccan police beating

Pictures he has supplied to the BBC clearly show severe bruising to his backside.

We have repeatedly contacted the Moroccan authorities, and they have failed to respond to the allegation that Rachid Sghir was in effect tortured.

In the past the Moroccan government has denied allegations of widespread abuse and has defended the country's human rights record.

But it has long faced criticism from human rights groups over its treatment of those who campaign for independence for Western Sahara.

In 2008, Human Rights Watch accused the Moroccan government of using "a combination of repressive laws, police violence, and unfair trials to punish Saharawis who advocate peacefully in favour of independence or full self-determination for the disputed Western Sahara".

Historic dispute

Western Sahara lies on the north-west coast of Africa and has a population of less than half a million.

map of Western Sahara

The area was ruled by Spain until 1975, when it was divided with Spain's agreement between Morocco and Mauritania.

Morocco calls the area Moroccan Sahara and asserts historical ownership.

A war followed between Morocco and an independence movement called the Polisario Front, made up of the indigenous Saharawi people and backed by neighbouring Algeria.

A UN-sponsored ceasefire was negotiated in 1991 to end the Polisario Front's guerrilla war against Morocco. A referendum on the status of the territory has been planned but the terms have never been agreed.

Today, more than 100,000 people who fled Western Sahara during the fighting are still living in refugee camps run by the Polisario Front across the border in the Algerian desert near the border town of Tindouf.

Morocco claims these refugees are being held against their will by Polisario, a claim denied by the independence movement.

In October 2009, some months after his BBC interview, Sghir left Western Sahara with six other human rights activists to visit the camps at Tindouf.

The Moroccan government considers such visits a threat to the integrity of the state, a criminal offence under Moroccan law.

Sghir and his colleagues were arrested on their return from the camps, charged under various offences and now face trial in a military court.

Prisoners of conscience

Amnesty International has called on the Moroccan government to respect the men's human rights, calling their continued imprisonment "a serious attack on freedom of expression by the Moroccan Authorities".

The Moroccan authorities will not tolerate even peaceful criticism of their stance on Western Sahara
Malcolm Smart, Amnesty

"They are prisoners of conscience and should be freed without delay," said Malcolm Smart, the director of Amnesty's Middle East and North Africa Programme.

"The imprisonment of Rachid Sghir and the others appears intended not only to punish them for their beliefs but also to send a signal to others that the Moroccan authorities will not tolerate even peaceful criticism of their stance on Western Sahara."

The Moroccan government has proposed a solution to the current impasse over Western Sahara, involving autonomy for the region but maintaining Moroccan sovereignty.

The Polisario Front rejected the autonomy proposal in favour of full independence for the territory.

Western Sahara attracts few headlines and we only visited because it lay on our journey around the world along the Tropic of Cancer, the northern border of Earth's tropical region - a journey which took us to 18 different countries.

"It's a beautiful area of the world, but also home to a great deal of injustice," said presenter Simon Reeve.

"It was humbling to meet Sghir and other democracy campaigners and human rights activists who put their freedom on the line daily to battle for rights that we in Britain can take for granted," said Reeve.

Simon Reeve's interview with Rachid Sghir features in Tropic of Cancer on BBC Two at 8pm on Sunday 21 March.



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