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(Washington) – Moroccan security forces have maintained an almost constant massive presence outside the home of a Western Sahara independence activist for more than three months, Human Rights Watch said today. They provided no justification and prevented several people, including family members, from visiting them.

The surveillance and violations of activist Sultana Khaya’s right to freely associate with others, at her home in Boujdour, Western Sahara, are emblematic of Morocco’s intolerance of calls for self-determination Sahrawis in defiance of Morocco’s claim to the territory. Khaya is known locally for her displays of vehement opposition to Morocco’s control of Western Sahara. She often demonstrates in the street, alone or with others, waving Sahrawi flags and chanting independence slogans in front of members of the Moroccan security forces.

“Moroccan authorities may well dislike Sultana Khaya’s pro-independence views and her blunt style,” said Eric Goldstein, acting director for the Middle East and North Africa at Human Rights Watch. “Yet expressing oneself peacefully remains her right, and nothing justifies blocking her home without any legal basis.”

Khaya returned to her family on November 19, 2020, after a visit to Spain. While she was out that day, members of the Moroccan security forces raided the house. During their operation, they hit her 84-year-old mother on the head, Khaya told Human Rights Watch. Security guards have since remained outside the house.

Human Rights Watch viewed several videos, shot on different dates between November 19 and today, showing groups of uniformed security forces mixed with men in civilian clothes, some stationed near police vehicles, at the outside Khaya’s home as she shouts for independence slogans from a window or a few feet from the front door. Some show the men blocking the way to visitors or pushing them back.

Since November 19, Khaya has left the house less than a dozen times, walking a few meters, filming members of the security forces with her phone, then re-entering the house. She said she often stood at a window, waving the Sahrawi flag and chanting independence slogans.

Khaya has only ventured further from her home once since November 19, she told Human Rights Watch. At the end of December, she said, she walked about 150 meters from her door, until a group of security forces gathered near her. “They didn’t stop or touch me, but I felt threatened and feared for my life, so I walked home,” she said.

The Moroccan authorities have long firmly kept aside any public demonstration against Moroccan domination in Western Sahara and in favor of self-determination of the territory. They beat activists in their custody and in the streets, imprisoned and convicted them in trials marred by due process violations, including torture, hindered their freedom of movement and openly followed them. Moroccan authorities have also denied entry to Western Sahara to dozens of foreign visitors in recent years, including journalists and human rights activists.

On January 18, 2021, police officers prevented Khaya’s cousin from entering the house. They also brutally pushed Khaya, who was standing outside, through her front door, she told Human Rights Watch.

On February 13, while filming the police from an open window, Khaya was hit in the face by a stone that a member of the security forces threw from the street. The National Human Rights Council, an organ of the Moroccan state, on February 16 asked the Boujdour prosecutor to investigate the incident.

Human Rights Watch interviewed Hassanna Duihi, a Sahrawi independence activist who lives in Boujdour. Duihi said he had tried to visit Khaya four times since December. The first two times, members of the uniformed security forces pushed him back, providing no reason other than that they had “orders,” Duihi said. Human Rights Watch reviewed a video of one of the incidents, provided by Duihi. Filmed from inside the house, the one-minute video matches Duihi’s description of the incident. Duihi was able to visit Khaya on February 19 and 21 in the early hours of the morning, he said.

At around noon on February 21, a man in civilian clothes snatched Khaya’s cell phone from her as she stood in the street outside her front door, filming members of the security forces as they blocked a visitor. Duihi and Babouzid Buihi, another independence activist interviewed by Human Rights Watch, witnessed the incident from inside Khaya’s home, which Buihi had also reached earlier in the day. Both men said she held a sit-in outside her front door until 11 p.m. The phone was slipped under her door half an hour later, but Khaya said she refused to use it, fearing spyware had been installed there.

On February 23, Khaya said, a police officer attempted to give him a summons to appear before a prosecutor. She refused to take the document, claiming that she did not recognize Morocco’s sovereignty over Western Sahara, and therefore jurisdiction over it. Human Rights Watch does not know the basis for the summons.

In response to an investigation by Human Rights Watch, the Moroccan inter-ministerial delegation for human rights said, “Neither (Khaya) nor his family are subjected to any form of harassment or surveillance. They added that on November 19, Khaya, returning from a trip, was “greeted by a group of people on the street in front of her house”, and that authorities urged the group to “respect security measures” in response. to the Covid-19 pandemic. . This request, they said, resulted in Khaya’s mother “losing consciousness” for reasons they did not specify.

Khaya said no local official had ever mentioned Covid-19 to justify the continued presence of police forces around his home since November or to block some visitors. Duihi said Moroccan authorities did not impose any Covid-19 security measures on Boujdour beyond the nighttime curfew they imposed across Morocco and Moroccan-controlled Western Sahara. He said that to his knowledge, the police did not maintain such intense surveillance outside any other private residence in the city and that the pandemic had not prevented various overcrowded events in the city, including pro-political rallies. Moroccans.

Most of Western Sahara has been under Moroccan control since Spain, the territory’s former colonial administrator, withdrew in 1975. In 1991, Morocco and the Polisario, the Western Sahara liberation movement, agreed of a ceasefire negotiated by the UN to prepare a referendum on self-determination. This referendum never took place. Morocco sees Western Sahara as an integral part of the kingdom and rejects demands for a vote on self-determination that would include independence as an option.

“The muscular police surveillance around Sultana Khaya’s home illustrates Morocco’s determination to maintain pressure, including psychological ones, on those who reject its claim to sovereignty over Western Sahara,” Goldstein said.

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Teresa R. Cabrera

The author Teresa R. Cabrera