Amnesty International has called on the Moroccan authorities to end the ongoing harassment and intimidation of Sahrawi activists, as five of six who have been detained since last October began the fourth week of a hunger strike in protest at their detention without trial.
The hunger strikers are among a number of Sahrawi activists who have faced harassment and intimidation after visiting refugee camps in Algeria administered by the Polisario Front, which calls for the independence of Western Sahara and has set up a self-proclaimed government-in-exile.
One group was beaten with batons at Laayoune airport last Wednesday when they returned to Western Sahara from the Tindouf refugee camps.
The six detainees on hunger strike were among seven Sahrawi activists arrested on 8 October 2009 at Mohammed V airport in Casablanca when they returned from visiting the Tindouf camps in Algeria.
"We are increasingly concerned for the health of these detainees as they continue with their protest," said Malcolm Smart, Amnesty International's director for the Middle East and North Africa programme.
"In fact, we consider them prisoners of conscience imprisoned for the peaceful exercise of freedom of expression, and we are urging the Moroccan authorities to release them immediately and unconditionally."
Five of the six began a hunger strike on 18 March in protest against their continuing detention without trial, and the sixth joined in earlier this week.
Although they are all civilians, they have been referred for trial by the Military Court on charges of undermining Morocco’s security including its "territorial integrity", but six months after their arrest no date for their trial has yet been set.
The six - Ahmed Alansari, Brahim Dahane, Yahdih Ettarouzi, Rachid Sghir, Ali Salem Tamek, and Saleh Labihi, who joined the hunger strike last Monday – are all held at Salé Prison, near Rabat, far from their homes in Western Sahara.
The five who have been on hunger strike for longest are now reported to be too weak to leave their cells for family visits
The seventh member of the group and only woman to be arrested, Dakja Lashgar, was provisionally released in January on health grounds.
Last Wednesday, 11 other Sahrawi activists were assaulted by a crowd of people chanting slogans in support of Moroccan rule in Western Sahara when they arrived at Laayoune airport after visiting the Tindouf refugee camps.
The crowd accused them of being "traitors" because of their advocacy of self-determination for the people of Western Sahara, which Morocco annexed in 1975. Some beat the Sahrawis with batons in front of Moroccan law enforcement officials who, however, failed to intervene.
Earlier, on 9 March, another group of Sahrawi activists who had recently returned from visiting Tindouf were beaten by Moroccan law enforcement officials, who used excessive force to break up a demonstration in Laayoune in favour of self-determination for Western Sahara.
Sahrawis from Western Sahara arrived to the Tindouf refugee camps in 1975 and 1976, after Morocco annexed the territory. The Algerian government estimates the number of Sahrawi refugees in the camps to be 165,000. The UNHCR assists about "90,000 vulnerable people in the camps". A ceasefire between Morocco and the Polisario Front has been in place since 1991.
Africa's last colony
Since 1975, three quarters of the Western Sahara territory has been illegally occupied by Morocco. The original population lives divided between those suffering human rights abuses under the Moroccan occupation and those living in exile in Algerian refugee camps. For more than 40 years, the Saharawi await the fulfilment of their legitimate right to self-determination.