Roots of the conflict
Most people outside the region are generally unaware of this dispute on the western tip of North Africa, so first we’re going to provide some history and context for the tense politics.
Western Sahara is a territory on the northwest coast of Africa, bordering Morocco, Mauritania and a sliver of Algeria, with a population of more than 600,000. Morocco claims it has historical ties to the region, but there’s been a long-standing dispute over who has rights to it.
“The Sahara is historically known as part of Morocco, which several of its dynasties have ruled over,” said Moroccan international economic law professor Tajeddine El Husseini. However, there are different viewpoints on the legitimacy of Morocco’s claim to the region.
“For centuries, Moroccan dynasties had attempted to control, influence or at least tax the areas that would become Western Sahara,” Colgate Professor of Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies Jacob Mundy told the Fact Checker. According to Mundy, they were largely unsuccessful.
In the late 1800s, Europe colonized much of Africa, a period during which Spain took control of Western Sahara and France took control of Morocco. In 1956, Morocco gained its independence from France and in 1975 invaded Western Sahara. In the power vacuum, Morocco, Mauritania and the Polisario, a pro-independence movement, fought over Western Sahara. Mauritania eventually renounced its claim and backed the Polisario. In the aftermath, the Moroccan government and the Polisario sporadically fought over the territory until the United Nations brokered a cease-fire in 1991.
The parties agreed to a referendum in which people in Western Sahara would vote for independence or Moroccan authority. But the vote never happened — largely because there was a disagreement on who could cast a ballot.
From 1980 to 1987, Morocco built a sand berm that runs the length of the territory and separates the opposing forces. Morocco controls three-quarters of the area, west of the wall. Sahrawis — an ethnic group indigenous to Western Sahara and its surrounding areas — mostly live in Moroccan-controlled areas or in Algerian refugee camps.
They are still waiting for a referendum.
Morocco and the Sahrawis
Morocco maintains a heavy security presence in the regions it controls. Many Sahrawis say they live under an oppressive rule. “Sahrawis have been displaced and have become refugees. In the occupied cities, they suffer from militarization, from a siege; all of their freedoms are repressed,” Sahrawi activist Nezha El Khalidi said.
Husseini disagrees and provided a viewpoint widely held in Morocco: “The myth of hegemony or subjugation of the population does not exist because there is no person with a greatest freedom of expression, movement, political party affiliation and belief than the Sahrawis.”
Despite conflicting reports about how Sahrawis are treated, a media blackout encompasses the region, making it difficult for the rest of the world to know what life is like in Western Sahara. However, some activists post videos and photos to social media. The visual evidence that breaks through the media blackout often shows human rights abuses against Sahrawis.
Walid Elbatal identifies as a media activist — someone who films and uploads videos and photos of Moroccan police violence online. Friends and relatives claim that although he doesn’t have any bylines, he is well known by Moroccan authorities — so much so that his movements are monitored. Many Sahrawi activists claim to be living under Moroccan surveillance, which is one reason Sahrawi media activists and journalists do not put their names on their work.
A brutal beating
On June 7, Elbatal attended a reception for the release of Sahrawi political prisoner Salah Lebsir. His friends said that Elbatal went to cover the event for the local pro-independence media outlet, Smara News. In Western Sahara, it’s customary for Sahrawis to celebrate the release of activists with a reception. Moroccan authorities usually barricade these events. Verified video and photos show that at this particular reception, police surrounded Lebsir’s home.
What was set to be a happy day quickly turned violent when police beat and arrested Elbatal and two other men.
“The moment I stepped foot in my family’s house, I heard the screams of the Sahrawis who were outside,” Lebsir said. “There were chants and news about the arrest. It was an atmosphere of joy, but also sadness. Joy of finally embracing freedom mixed with sorrow over the arrest of the Sahrawi youths.”
A disturbing video shows Elbatal and another man — Yahdhih El Ghazal — dragged from their truck and beaten by Moroccan police a couple of blocks away from the celebrations.
The Moroccan authorities justified the incident by claiming that the car Elbatal was in collided with police vehicles and that Elbatal resisted arrest. Therefore, they say that police used necessary force.
The evidence does not support the claim.
In collaboration with the UC Berkeley Human Rights Center Lab, the Fact Checker confirmed the video’s authenticity by comparing landmarks in the video to Google Earth satellite imagery. The video was taken June 9, a couple of blocks away from Lebsir’s reception. There are many features that suggest that the men beating Elbatal were police officers in plainclothes. Elbatal was surrounded by police vehicles, one man is wearing a police helmet, and at the end of the video, one of the men escorts a woman from the vehicle Elbatal was in to a police car.
Salem Mayyara is Elbatal’s friend and says he was on the roof of a nearby building when Elbatal’s car was stopped. “A car belonging to the Moroccan authorities, with officers in civilian clothes inside, besieged the car that Walid was riding in,” he said.
Bishraya Wild Al-Bukhari, another of Elbatal’s friends, said he was behind the person who filmed the video of Elbatal’s beating. “They dragged Walid out of the car’s window,” he said. “After they dragged Walid out, they beat him. They beat him like someone who just found a snake and is trying to kill it.”
Police arrested Elbatal and Ghazal. “They beat and tortured us there, and then they took us to the police station,” Ghazal told the Fact Checker. “They beat us there. And we passed out — I passed out; when I woke up I found myself in the hospital.”
Court documents show that Elbatal and Ghazal were taken to a hospital after their arrest. The Moroccan authorities claimed that the men were brought to the hospital because of injuries they sustained in colliding with police barriers and resisting arrest.
“We arrived at the hospital, we found them handcuffed. Ripped clothes, their bodies … you could see signs of torture on their faces, their backs, their legs … they were bleeding. Police didn’t even allow us to talk to him or get any closer. We looked from afar,” Elbatal’s father, Salk Elbatal, said.
Elbatal was charged with crimes including obstructing traffic, threatening and harming public officials, and carrying a weapon. The courts convicted him and the sentence was six years in prison. He appealed the decision and his sentence was lowered to two years.
The U.N. Human Rights Office of the High Commission requested an investigation into Elbatal’s case, raising concerns over human rights abuses. The Moroccan government, which did not grant our requests for an interview, responded in a February letter. Officials wrote that the public prosecutor had opened an ongoing investigation into the circumstances surrounding the arrest but rejected all claims of abuse.
Officials asserted that the car Elbatal was in intentionally collided with police vehicles and that Elbatal was wielding weapons. The Fact Checker did not find any visual evidence of weapons used by Elbatal. And when it comes to the collision, Elbatal and his friends say the opposite — that police vehicles cornered and hit the car Elbatal was in.
“The [police vehicle] collided with Walid’s car from the side. The goal was to block the car, to completely immobilize it,” Mayyara said.
The front of the car carrying Elbatal was not damaged, as seen in photos published in a Moroccan news outlet and the video of the beating. This means it’s unlikely that Elbatal and his friends hit the police vehicle. In fact, the front of the police car and the left side of the car Elbatal was in were damaged, supporting the claims of eyewitnesses.
Elbatal is serving his sentence and Ghazal is in hiding.
The Bottom Line
Elbatal’s story is representative of many others in Western Sahara. “It’s not just Walid and his friends,” said Lebsir. “There are so many political detainees besides them who are inside the Moroccan occupation prisons.”
The Fact Checker obtained several videos verified by the human rights lab of Moroccan authorities intimidating, shoving, kicking and throwing rocks at Sahrawis. The videos are often posted through pro-independence media outlets, messaging apps or social media pages, even though activists know they could face retaliation from the Moroccan government.
“I talk to you even though I know it’s dangerous. But it’s okay — it’s almost as if this has become the norm,” Bukhari said when asked why he was speaking to foreign journalists. “If it’s written for us to go to jail or prison, if it’s written for us to die, so be it.”
What happened to Elbatal illustrates the extent to which the Moroccan government exerts control over its territories and Sahrawis in Western Sahara. But videos and forensic tools make it harder for governments to continue committing these abuses unchecked.
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