Release political prisoners in Africa’s last colony

Africa Contact today launches the ACT NOW to free Sidahmed Lemjayed Campaign together with our partner organisations. Sidahmed Lemjayed is the President of the Commitee for the Protection of Natural Resources (CSPRON) in occupied Moroccan-Western Sahara, Africa’s last colony.

Sidahmed Lemjayed was sentenced to life imprisonment by a Moroccan military court (he is a civilian) on February 16 2013. The charges against him were membership of a criminal gang and deadly violence against members of the Moroccan security forces during the raid of the Gdeim Izik protest camp outside El Aaiun in Moroccan-occupied Western Sahara.

But Africa Contact see him as a political prisoner who is being punished for his work to protect the natural resources of Western Sahara against widespread, illegal Moroccan plunder and the widespread exhausting of Western Sahara’s natural resources.

“With this campaign, we wish to focus attention on, and demand justice for, not only Sidahmed Lemjayed, but also the 24 other Saharawi political prisoners together with whom he was sentenced. We also wish to send a strong message to the Moroccan government, that the world will not simply stand by while Morocco continues to colonize Western Sahara, brutalize its native population, steal its resources and devastate its environment”, says Africa Contact’s Political Chairperson, Mads Barbesgaard.

The court case against Lemjayed was condemned by Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and the UN Committee Against Torture, among many others, who deplored the fact that the Sidahmed Lemjayed and his 24 co-accused were tried at a military court. Many MP’s, diplomats and individuals – including respected film maker Ken Loach – have also criticized the trial, and there have been protests in front of Moroccan embassies around the world, including a protest in front of the Moroccan Embassy in Copenhagen, arranged by Africa Contact.

According to Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, the Moroccan authorities often use torture as a means of extracting false confessions from Saharawi (Western Sahara’s indigenous population) detainees. The methods of torture include beatings, electroshock and rape and the threat of rape.

Lemjayed and his 24 co-accused were detained and held without trial for two years in the infamous Sale prison in Morocco (anything exceeding one year is illegal according to Moroccan law). Many of them are human rights activists, like Lemjayed, and campaign for an independent Western Sahara and against the extension of the EU-Moroccan Fisheries Agreement – an agreement that doesn’t specifically exclude the shores of Western Sahara, which means that it is both in violation of international law and an important means of Moroccan attempts to normalise its colonisation of Western Sahara, and an agreement that has led to severe overfishing off the coasts of Western Sahara.

All 25 prisoners vigourously deny the charges against them, insist that the trial against them was politically motivated, and that they were in effect convicted before the trial even started for having helped to arrange the Gdeim Izik protest-camp. The prisoners have been on several hunger strikes to protest the ill-treatment, torture and awful conditions that they have had to endure whilst in prison.

The Gdeim Izik protest camp was started to protest Moroccan human rights violations, discrimination against the Saharawis, and the fisheries agreement with the EU, to call for an improved standard of living for the Saharawi people in occupied Western Sahara, and to demand the referendum on the status of Western Sahara that the UN and Morrocco have promised the Saharawis for decades.The reason for choosing the form of a protest camp was that a mass-exodus into the dessert near El Aaiun (the capital of Western Sahara) meant that the protestors could avoid the siege-like effect that Moroccan police creates during demonstrations and protest action in the cities and towns of occupied Western Sahara.

Moroccan security forces immediately started harassing the inhabitants of the camp; by intimidating fly-by’s of helicopters over the camp, by gradually isolating the camp (and thereby cutting of food, water and medicine supplies) from the outside world through military blockades and a sand berm. A 14-year-old boy, a passenger in a car approaching one of these blockades, was killed by soldiers who opened fire against the vehicle.

Moroccan security forces raided the camp practically without warning, leaving the between 5000 and 24.000 protesters (depending on who one quotes, the UN says 15.000) no chance of escape. The security forces used rubber bullets, live ammunition, water cannons, tear gas, truncheons and stones against the protesters. The raid resulted in several deaths, as well as scores of disappearances, mass detaining and torture of Saharawis.

Morocco observed a strict media blackout before, during and after the raid, and many journalists, politicians and others were arrested and/or were prohibited from coming anywhere near El Aaiun or the site of protest camp, including a group of Spanish journalists and parliamentarians, members of the European Parliament, the President of the Democratic World Federation and several international observers and activists.

The raiding of the camp has been condemned (or those commenting have expressed “concern”) by the African Union, the European Parliament, the South African Government, and the UN Security Council, amongst many others.

Read more about Sidahmed and CSPRON, and sign the petition.

Sidahmed Lemjayed

Sidahmed Lemjayed was born in El Aaiun in Western Sahara in 1959, when Western Sahara was still a Spanish colony. When Morocco invaded Western Sahara in 1975, Sidahmed was 16 years old.

Like many other Saharawis in both the occupied areas and in the refugee camps in South-West Algeria, where many of the Saharawis fled to from the advancing Moroccan troops in 1975, he choose to fight against the colonisation of his country and its impacts on their lives: discrimination, torture, and the plundering of Western Saharas resources.

Sidahmed is the President of CSPRON, the Committee for the Protection of Natural Resources in Western Sahara, an organisation that amongst other things lobbies actors such as the EU and reports on issues such as the plundering of Western Sahara’s fishing banks by Marocco and the EU.

In his role as President of CSPRON, and like many Saharawis, he has paid a heavy price for speaking out against the Moroccan colonial power.

– He was arrested and jailed, and had his car confiscated, in 1999, after large-scale demonstrations in El Aaiun.
– He was arrested several times again in 2005, and jailed for months on end, during another spate of demonstrations that called for self-determination for the Saharawis and protection of their natural resources.
– And finally, he was arrested in connection with the Gdeim Izik protest camp on December 25, 2010. He was detained by plain-clothed Moroccan security agents in El Aaiun and taken to an unknown location, where he was interrogated and tortured. He was then brought before a military court, convicted on the basis of false allegations, and sentenced to life imprisonment.

Apart from Sidahmed Lemjayed, two other members of CSPRON are presently imprisoned by the Moroccan authorities, having also been sentenced by Moroccan military courts:

Mohammed Manolo, born in Birn Anzaran, Western Sahara, in 1970, and the father of four.
Kamal Traihe, born outside Dakhla, Western Sahara, in 1982.

Both are human rights defenders and a members of the Dakhla branch of CSPRON. They were arrested on 1. October and 2. October 2011 in Dakhla, Western Sahara, due to their efforts to expose the human rights violations of Morocco in Western Sahara and the plundering of Western Sahara’s resources by Morocco, as well as their support for peaceful protests that demanded the Saharawi peoples’ right to self-determination.

They were both sentenced to three years imprisonment in Lakhal Prison in El Aaiun (Laayoune), Western Sahara, and have both previously been abducted and tortured by Moroccan authorities.

Committee for the Protection of Natural Resources in Western Sahara

The Committee for the Protection of Natural Resources in Western Sahara (CSPRON), and its President Sidahmed Lemjayed, is a Saharawi organisation that amongst other things lobbies the EU and reports on issues such as the plundering of Western Sahara’s fishing banks by Morocco and the EU.

While CSPRON also focuses broadly on for instance the inaction of the UN settlement plan, including the promise of a referendum on Western Saharan independence, the main focus of the organisation is on the plundering of Western Sahara’s diverse and rich natural resources, not least Western Sahara’s rich marine resources.

CSPRON sees the protection of Western Sahara’s natural resources as an important part of ensuring the continuing existence of the Saharawi people, many of whom are suffering from malnutrition in refugee camps in South-West Algeria or who have had their livelihood endangered in Moroccan-occupied Western Sahara because of Moroccan settlers.

According to a report from CSPRON, the European fleet of especially Spanish fishing vessels, that a fisheries agreement between the EU and Morocco allows to fish illegally of the coast of Western Sahara, is in the process of severely exhausting many fish and mollusc species. Several species are in danger of becoming extinct in the area, and Morocco’s own figures show that many species have declined by over 50%.

“The over-exploitation of the Saharawi fishery threatens the extinction of a wide range of marine resources, and thus the entire region,” the report concludes. “It will lead to an environmental disaster.”

The report also describes how this overfishing, combined with the hundreds of thousands of Moroccan settlers who are given precedence over the Saharawis, is robbing traditional Saharawi fishermen who have fished in these waters for generations of their livelihood.

“Fishing activities create nearly 60.000 indirect jobs, 35.500 jobs aboard fishing boats, or on average 100.000 jobs in traditional fishing activities. The Saharawi proportion of this does not exceed 10% of this number.”

But the exploitation of Western Sahara’s resources and population, and the bilateral agreements between amongst others the EU and Morocco that make this exploitation possible, is about more than just money, says CSPRON.

It is also about “transforming this wealth into a means to finance the Moroccan occupation army in its war against the Saharawi people.”

It is a way of legitimising the occupation in the eyes of the world, as “Morocco has used the Saharawi fisheries as a tool to serve its own political interests, based on occupation and expansion,” says CSPRON.

And it is about particularly the EU and other Western countries exploiting the wealth of a colony for its own good. “The wealth of Western Sahara has become a way of covering the shortfall in the fishery resources of the Western countries, despite international resolutions and legal opinions of the UN saying that this is a case of illegal exploitation.”

But a with other matters, such as the lack of progress on the referendum on the status of Western Sahara that the UN has promised for decades, the record of the international community is dismal, says CSPRON.

“But the exploitation of Western Sahara’s natural resources without the consent of the indigenous population, the Saharawis, is a flagrant violation of international law;” says CSPRON. “Everyone involved in the looting of natural resources exploited directly or indirectly without the will of the Saharawi people is in violation of international law.”

See interview with Sidahmed, film about Gdeim Izik, and interviews with Gdeim Izik activist (here, here and here).

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