The people of Western Sahara have fought against foreign domination of their land for decades. The country, located in northwestern Africa, was a direct colony of Spain from 1884 to 1975. In 1975, as the independence struggle led by the Polisario Front picked up steam, the Spanish government handed Western Sahara over to the semicolonial regimes of Mauritania and Morocco.
Today Morocco, with the support of French and U.S. imperialism, continues to occupy two-thirds of Western Sahara. Mauritania withdrew and recognized the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) after the Polisario Front militarily defeated it in 1979. Close to 200,000 Sahrawis, the majority of the population, have been driven off their land since 1975 and live in refugee camps in Algeria, near the border, and in the liberated zone in the eastern part of the country.
Hunger strike: focal point of resistance
The Lakhal hunger strike began December 25 with 131 prisoners. Twenty-three are political prisoners who are demanding their immediate release and an end to Moroccan repression. Most had participated in street protests that included calls for independence in El Aaiun and Smara last November. Other hunger strikers have demanded a reduction of their sentences, pointing to unequal treatment that Sahrawis receive from the Moroccan authorities, including significantly harsher punishment for crimes. All the hunger strikers have also denounced prison conditions. The prison, built to hold up to 250 people, was housing 700.
Mothers of the detainees have demonstrated in front of the Court of Appeal and the prison since December 26, in spite of intimidation and police violence. The Western Sahara Weekly News reports 70 mothers were attacked by riot police as they wound up their march January 2.
Under pressure from the prison protest, ongoing street demonstrations, and an international campaign condemning the monarchy's treatment of the prisoners, the prison administration took some measures to improve the conditions of overcrowding and unsanitary conditions.
Three prisoners, who authorities considered leaders of the hunger strike, were transferred to prisons in Morocco. About 40 people have ended the fast because of deteriorating health or fear of retribution.
Actions call for jobs, independence
Many of the political prisoners were part of a wave of ongoing protests in Smara against the Moroccan regime. King Mohamed VI was due to visit Smara as part of a tour of Western Sahara marking the 26th anniversary of the Moroccan invasion, which took place Oct. 31, 1975. The Smara stop was canceled, royal sources said, due to sirocco winds, but the Polisario Front pointed to the unbroken resistance in the city center as the main factor. The Spanish daily El Pais, reporting from Smara November 5, said that the day before the king's planned visit police tried to forcefully disperse a sit-in--going on its third day--opposing the monarch.
"Sahrawis have disguised their views for independence under the mantle of social demands to avoid police repression," El Pais reported. "In protests, men carry posters with slogans written in the colors of Polisario's flag. Usually they hoist symbols of Arab countries who have nothing to do with the Western Sahara conflict, in an attempt to demonstrate that they do not accept the Cherifian [Morocco's monarchy] symbols.... Since October 31, about 100 Sahrawis, in their majority youth and women, have protested in front of the wilaya [provincial seat of government] demanding houses, jobs, university scholarships, and news on the fate of disappeared relatives at the hands of Moroccan police."
Sixty people were arrested during a November 17 sit-in demonstration in front of the wilaya in Smara, according to the Weekly News. Sixteen were transferred to the prison in El Aaiun--the scene of the ongoing hunger strike--facing charges of destruction of public property, attacking agents of authority, and theft.
Longest-held political prisoner released
In a major victory for the independence struggle, Mohamed Daddach, the longest-held Sahrawi political prisoner, who served 23 years, was pardoned by King Mohamed VI November 7. Fifty-five others were also released. Mass organizations in Western Sahara, led by the Association of Family Members of Sahrawi Prisoners and Disappeared, waged a concerted campaign both in the occupied territory and internationally to demand the release of Daddach and all political prisoners. Leading up to their release, Daddach and others had also carried out hunger strikes to bring attention to their case.
The Weekly News reported that after their release the prisoners were welcomed by Sahrawi students in Marrakech. On November 10, a motorcade of some 50 cars welcomed them to El Aaiun where independence fighters held a rally. Daddach called on the UN to hold the referendum vote on independence.
Daddach was referring to a UN-brokered agreement in which the Moroccan government pledged to hold a referendum by Sahrawis to decide on independence or integration with Morocco. The agreement, signed in 1991, came after a cease-fire was signed following a nearly two-decade-long independence war led by the Polisario Front. The Moroccan rulers and their imperialist backers in Paris and Washington have stalled the referendum vote because of the mass support for independence. A similar rally took place in Smara three days later.
Motor rally organizers recognize SADR
A representative of Thierry Sabine Organization (TSO), which holds the annual Paris-Dakar motor rally, visited the liberated territories of Western Sahara and met with the Sahrawi minister of defense Mohamed Lamine Bouhali. The TSO sought permission for the rally to pass through the occupied country on January 4, which was granted by Bouhali.
Last year the TSO only consulted the Moroccan government, a move that was widely seen by partisans of Sahrawi's independence struggle as another move to legitimize Morocco's occupation internationally. This led the Polisario Front to suspend the cease-fire and escalated tensions between the liberation fighters and the monarchy.
The main sponsor of the rally is TotalFinaElf, a French oil giant that recently signed a contract with Morocco for oil exploration off the Western Sahara coast, the first such agreement since the opening years of the guerrilla war. Kerr McGee, a U.S.-based energy company, signed a similar agreement. Both ignored the SADR government-in-exile.
Meanwhile, the Polisario Front released 115 Moroccan prisoners of war January 2 after discussions with the president of Spain, Josť Maria Anzar. There are still some 1,300 Moroccan prisoners of war held in the liberated zone and refugee camps of Western Sahara. The Moroccan regime continues to deny the Polisario Front any information about freedom fighters who have been "disappeared" since 1975.
Annalucia Vermunt is a member of the Meat Workers Union in Christchurch, New Zealand.
Independence for Western Sahara
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