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Moroccan Forces Raid Protest Camp in Western Sahara, Thousands Demonstrate in Madrid Against Crackdown

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Thousands of people demonstrated in Madrid on Saturday against Morocco’s recent crackdown in Western Sahara. Moroccan security forces last week raided a camp where some 20,000 Sahrawis had been staging a massive protest against the Moroccan occupation. Morocco has announced that it will try in a military court more than 100 Sahrawi activists who helped organize the camp. We go to Laâyoune to speak with Peter Bouckaert of Human Rights Watch, and we are joined by University of San Francisco professor Stephen Zunes, author of Western Sahara: War, Nationalism, and Conflict Irresolution. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Thousands of people demonstrated in Madrid Saturday against Morocco’s recent crackdown in Western Sahara. Moroccan security forces last week raided a camp where some 20,000 Sahrawis had been staging a massive protest against the Moroccan occupation. The Moroccan forces used water cannons, tear gas, batons, fired rubber bullets, to break up the protest camp. Dozens of protesters were wounded. The raid ended what had been described as the biggest protest in Western Sahara since Spain withdrew from the territory 35 years ago. Morocco has announced it will try in a military court over 100 Sahrawi activists who participated in the organization of the camp.

On Saturday, thousands took to the streets of Madrid, Spain, to protest the crackdown. Among those demonstrating were European lawmakers, civil rights and trade union leaders, as well as Academy Award-winning Spanish actor Javier Bardem.

JAVIER BARDEM: I’m here today just to show my support to the Sahrawi people and to condemn the violence by the Moroccan government — dictatorship, I would say. And we have to fight for the independence of the Sahrawi people, because the land is theirs, and now it’s totally occupied by Morocco with the support of the United Nations, United States, France, Spain and a lot of other countries.

PROTESTER: [translated] I am here to demonstrate against the injustices taking place in my country. It’s very sad to see that those who govern us support the tyrants and the terrorists.

WILLY MEYER PLEITE: [translated] I am Willy Meyer. I am a European parliamentarian for the United Left Party of Spain, and I represent the Communist Party on an international level. I am here to show my solidarity towards the Sahrawi people.

GUILLERMO TOLEDO: My name is Willy Toledo, and I am an actor, Spanish actor. And I am here for the demonstration to protest against the situation over there and the things that the governments all over the world are doing, which is nothing.

EMBARKA BACHIR: [translated] I am Embarka Bachir. I’m from the Western Sahara. And I’m here to demonstrate against the injustice and to support independence for the people of the Western Sahara. We’re here to ask the Spanish government and the United States to help us end the injustices that Morocco is committing to our people. They’re committing terrible injustices. They’re mistreating the Sahrawi people.

AMY GOODMAN: Some of the thousands of people in Saturday’s protest in Madrid, Spain. Special thanks to former Democracy Now! producer Maria Carrion for that film.

Well, for more, we’re going to go right to the Western Sahara to speak with Peter Bouckaert, Human Rights Watch’s emergencies director. He’s joining us on the phone from Laâyoune.

Welcome to Democracy Now! Can you explain the latest? But also recognizing that most people in the United States and in many places in the world don’t even know this conflict exists, so put it in context.

PETER BOUCKAERT: Yes. For the last few months, there has been a protest camp outside the city of El-Aaiún, where thousands of people from the Western Sahara, which was annexed by Morocco in the 1970s, protested the living conditions they are facing, the high unemployment and the social conditions. And last Monday, the Moroccan authorities, the security forces, went into the camp and effectively shut down the camp, and the very violent clashes erupted in the camp and also in the neighboring city of El-Aaiún, which the administrative capital of the Western Sahara.

AMY GOODMAN: There are very few journalists there. How are you able to operate inside as a human rights director?

PETER BOUCKAERT: Well, I was turned back twice from the airport myself while trying to make our way down to El-Aaiún. And I think it’s very sad that the Moroccan authorities are continuing to prevent many journalists from reaching this [inaudible], because it has led to a lack of information about what is actually happening on the ground and has [inaudible] the anger of the international community rather than getting the truth out there about what is actually happening on the ground.

AMY GOODMAN: What are people calling for in Western Sahara, Peter Bouckaert?

PETER BOUCKAERT: Well, there’s obviously a variety of voices out there. Many people in the Western Sahara feel that their country is occupied by the Moroccans. They want — some people want independence. Some people want greater autonomy. But this process was much more about the social conditions that people are facing on the ground, the very high levels of unemployment that exist and the general climate of repression that many people feel. And since the crackdown on the protest camp, there has been a wave of arrests and very serious abuses in detention.

AMY GOODMAN: What are those abuses, Peter Bouckaert?

PETER BOUCKAERT: Well, we have been interviewing people who have been released from detention, men and women, and they have been very severely beaten in detention. Some of the men have been threatened with rape. And they have shown us the bruises that they got from those brutal beatings. They’re being asked to confess to being involved in the violence and in the killing of security forces, as well as to the involvement of Algerian security forces and other outside elements. Obviously, these are forms of torture, and they will result in very unreliable confessions. So we’re calling on the Moroccan authorities to end these abuses in custody and to treat these detainees with respect and to ensure that they have fair trials.

AMY GOODMAN: When people there hear about the mass protests in places like Madrid, the thousands of people who marched this weekend, what effect does it have?

PETER BOUCKAERT: Well, I watched these news reports at the house of a family of the Western Sahara. Obviously, they were very encouraged that there is this international support. But I think it is important that the international support is based on an accurate view of the information. It’s still very unclear how high the death toll was among civilians, and there certainly are some claims out there which exaggerate the number of civilians who are killed. But our main concern right now is about the abuses that people are facing in detention and also the access to Western Sahara. Journalists and international investigators should be granted access to El-Aaiún, so they can come and establish the truth and report from the ground, and so pressure can build to end this repression which is taking place and these arrests and abuses in detention.

AMY GOODMAN: This is also the first anniversary of the Sahrawi human rights activist Aminatou Haidar holding a hunger fast in the Canary Islands airport, where she stayed for 32 years, languishing in the airport when Morocco refused to let her enter Laâyoune. She’s back getting medical treatment. In the next few days she’s going to attempt to fly back to where you are in Laâyoune, the city taken over by police and the military, where no international journalists, very few observers, are allowed access. She fears she’ll either be denied entrance or arrested when she returns. Peter Bouckaert, what do you expect?

PETER BOUCKAERT: Well, when I was at the airport, I was myself turned around twice. The Moroccan authorities claimed that there was a technical problem with my ticket, but it was very clear that intelligence agents at the airport had ordered the airline not to allow me to board. I saw many Spanish and Moroccan journalists being turned around, as well. So there certainly is a denial of access, and I fear that she will also be turned around or at least have some difficulty before she’s allowed to return to El-Aaiún.

AMY GOODMAN: And the trials, what do you expect of these trials, Morocco announcing it will try in a military court over a hundred Sahrawi activists?

PETER BOUCKAERT: Well, the information we have is that over a hundred activists have now been charged in civilian court, and at least six activists, major leaders, have been transferred to a military court in Rabat. Because of the use of torture and other abuses during detention, we’re very concerned about the fairness of these trials. We’ve met with the lawyers of these detained activists, and they have been unable to meet with their clients, and the families also have not been able to meet with their detained relatives. So we are seeking meetings with the authorities to try to push for greater access to these people in detention and also for fair trials and an end to the abuses that they are facing, which are very severe.

AMY GOODMAN: Peter Bouckaert, I want to thank you for being with us, Human Rights Watch’s emergencies director, speaking to us from Laâyoune in Western Sahara.

We’re also joined by Stephen Zunes, professor of politics and international studies and chair of Middle Eastern Studies at the University of San Francisco, co-author of a new book called Western Sahara: War, Nationalism, and Conflict Irresolution.

Professor Zunes, thank you for being with us. Start off by putting this all in a context. Again, as I asked Peter Bouckaert, most people don’t even know this is taking place, that there is this conflict and occupation.

STEPHEN ZUNES: Well, we’re looking at a situation that bears striking parallels to East Timor: on the verge of decolonization from a minor colonial power, the large neighbor came and gobbled up the country, with the United Nations Security Council, along with the International Court of Justice, ruled that this takeover was illegal, called for Morocco’s withdrawal, but Morocco, like Indonesia, had some powerful friends on the UN Security Council, including the United States, which has blocked the world bodies from enforcing their mandates. And so, in fact, the invasion took place just six weeks prior to the Indonesian invasion of East Timor, in November of 1975. So, for more than 35 years, the people of Western Sahara have been suffering under a foreign military occupation.

For the first 15 years, there was an armed struggle led by the Polisario Front, and a ceasefire came to pass in 1991 in return for a United Nations-supervised referendum on the fate of the territory. But the Moroccans, recognizing they would lose such a referendum, have prevented it from taking place. And again, with the backing of the United States and France and the Security Council, the UN has been powerless to enforce its mandate.

Just a few years ago, the people of Western Sahara started what they refer to as “Intifada Istiqlal,” Intifada for Independence, an overwhelmingly nonviolent struggle using the classic techniques of strategic nonviolent actions — strikes, boycotts, protests and the like — only to be met by increased Moroccan repression. And so, you have an irony of here you have a movement, which incidentally is — the most prominent leader of which is a woman, Aminatou Haidar. Here we have an Arab Muslim country engaged in nonviolent struggle to build a democracy and women’s rights, a very kind of a nation that Western countries say they want to see in the Arab and Islamic world, and yet we’re supporting this autocratic monarchy and crushing this nonviolent resistance.

AMY GOODMAN: Describe what’s happening at the United Nations right now, the talks that are taking place and who the Polisario are.

STEPHEN ZUNES: Well, the Polisario is recognized as the government of Western Sahara. In fact, the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic, which was declared upon — not long after the withdrawal of Spanish colonialist forces, has been recognized by more than 70 nations. They’re a full-member state of the African Union. They have been engaged in these peace talks with Morocco. The Polisario is pushing for the Moroccans to allow for a free and fair referendum, choosing between independence or to become integrated in Morocco, as the United Nations and the World Court have mandated. However, the Moroccans, backed by the French and formerly by the Bush administration — the Obama administration has been a little more ambivalent on this — have instead pushed for a so-called autonomy agreement, where a certain — a very limited degree of autonomy would be granted to the people of Western Sahara, but Morocco would essentially stay in power. It would not grant them the option independence, which is legally necessary for a true act of self-determination.

AMY GOODMAN: And how this occupation has been able to go on for as long as it has?

STEPHEN ZUNES: Well, again, to use the East Timor analogy, it’s legally and morally, and almost in any other way you want to look at it, the people of Western Sahara do have the right to self-determination. But Morocco has the guns, has the occupation forces. Indeed, you know, I’ve been to 60 countries around the world, including Indonesia under Suharto and Iraq under Saddam, and I’ve never seen a worse police state than I have seen in the occupied Western Sahara. But the main reason is the continued support by France and the United States of Morocco. And I think, frankly, the only real hope for Western Sahara is what we saw in East Timor, that an international solidarity movement, that global civil society will come together and essentially shame the Western governments that are continuing to back Morocco into ending this kind of unconditional support and allow for a true act of self-determination to take place.

AMY GOODMAN: The military relationship the U.S. has with Morocco and what exactly it could do?

STEPHEN ZUNES: Well, there have been very close ties between the United States and Morocco for quite a few years. During the Cold War, the monarchy was seen as a bulwark against communism and against left-leaning Arab nationalism. In more recent years, they’re seen as an ally in the so-called war on terrorism. It was massive U.S. military aid during the Reagan administration, including the use of U.S. Special Forces on the ground, that reversed the war that had been almost won by the Polisario. They liberated 85 percent of the country by 1981, but the Moroccans, with U.S. and French support, were able to beat back the Polisario, so now the Moroccans occupy 80 percent of the country.

And subsequently, the financial and diplomatic and military assistance of Morocco has enabled the occupying forces to keep a tight lid on the territory and suppress even nonviolent protest. I mean, there was hope that the protest camps, knowing if they’d said anything about independence, would be subjected to severe repression, limited their demands to pressing social and economic issues. But apparently even that was too much for the Moroccans, and we have seen the savage repression over the past week that has unfolded.

AMY GOODMAN: Stephen Zunes, I want to thank you for being with us, professor of politics and international studies and chair of the Middle Eastern Studies at University of San Francisco. He’s co-author of a new book called Western Sahara: War, Nationalism, and Conflict Irresolution.

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