The United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention (“Working Group”) has determined that Mohamed al-Bambary, a Sahrawi media activist serving six years in prison as a result of his journalism, is being arbitrarily detained in Morocco. Freedom Now and Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights announce today that on June 29, 2018, the Working Group issued a decision finding that the Moroccan authorities’ imprisonment of Mr. al-Bambary violated the media activist’s due process rights. Noting persistent abuse of independent media in Western Sahara, the Working Group called on Morocco to immediately release Mr. al-Bambary and grant him reparations, as well as proper medical treatment for ailments he incurred while in prison.
“This is an excellent decision by the Working Group,” said Kerry Kennedy, President of Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights. “Morocco’s occupation of Western Sahara is carried out through human rights abuses and the repression of independent voices calling for self-determination. This Working Group decision meticulously assesses the facts and evidence, and comes to the unavoidable conclusion that Morocco imprisoned Mr. al-Bambary because he dared to speak up and exercise his right to freedom of expression and association. There are many more like Mr. al-Bambary imprisoned in Western Sahara today.”
“Mr. al-Bambary’s arbitrary detention is unlawful and indicative of Morocco’s approach to silencing freedom of expression in Western Sahara,” said Maran Turner, Executive Director of Freedom Now. “As a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, Morocco should immediately comply with the decision of the UN and release Mr. al-Bambary.”
Prior to his arrest, Mr. al-Bambary was a media activist affiliated with Equipe Media, one of the few independent media outlets in Western Sahara. In September 2011 he took video of protests that ultimately turned into three days of violent clashes between two neighbourhoods in Dakhla, Western Sahara after the conclusion of a local soccer game. His documentation implicitly criticized the Moroccan government’s response to the violence.
Mr. al-Bambary was arrested on August 26, 2015 while attempting to renew his identification card at the police station in Dakhla. When authorities arrested Mr. al-Bambary, they initially interrogated him about protests that had occurred earlier that year, before switching to accusations of participating in the violence in Dakhla nearly four years earlier. While in detention, Mr. al-Bambary was subjected to torture intended to induce a false confession. The authorities forced him to sign a document, which he was not able to read or review. He was ultimately sentenced to six years in prison.
In March 2017, Freedom Now and Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights filed a petition with the Working Group on Mr. al-Bambary’s behalf, arguing that his arbitrary arrest and detention violated Morocco’s international human rights law obligations. The decision by the Working Group confirmed that Mr. al-Bambary was arrested because of his media activism, in particular his coverage of events related to the self-determination of the Sahrawi population and human rights violations.
Morocco significantly restricts freedom of expression and association through laws that criminalize expression critical of Morocco’s claim over Western Sahara. Numerous journalists and publishers have been prosecuted under such laws, leading to self-censorship amongst Sahrawi media outlets and bloggers. The authorities also target Sahrawi activists who report on human rights abuses. The few pro-Sahrawi media outlets that do operate, such as Equipe Media, face significant harassment from the Moroccan authorities. In such a repressive climate, arbitrary detention of pro-self-determination activists and journalists has become common and human rights groups consider a number of Sahrawis to be political prisoners. Those who are imprisoned for their political activities are usually held under the cover of a fabricated criminal charge. There has never been any prosecution of security officers in Western Sahara for conducting such arbitrary arrests.
The Working Group’s decision in Mr. al-Bambary’s case is an important step in holding the Moroccan government accountable for these widespread human rights violations. Freedom Now and Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights call on Morocco to abide by its international obligations and immediately and unconditionally release Mr. al-Bambary and all other prisoners of conscience.