The aim of the congress was to chart a course for the next four years for the Polisario Front, the organization leading the struggle for independence for Western Sahara, a former colony of Spain in northwest Africa that has been occupied since 1975 by Morocco, with the backing of Madrid, Paris, and Washington. Salem Tameks greetings were a highlight of the five-day gathering. They confirmed the continuing resistance inside the four-fifths of Western Sahara that Morocco controls.
The congress took place in Tifariti, a town in territory liberated by the Polisario Front through its 16-year war with Morocco. Tifariti is just 40 miles from a 1,500-mile sandwalldefended by landmines, U.S.-supplied electronic defenses, and more than 100,000 Moroccan troopsthat divides the 20 percent of the country that has been liberated from the occupiers boot.
Ali Salem Tamek
Tamek, 29, has been imprisoned since August 2002 on a two-year sentence for threatening the interior security of the state and affiliating to the organizations of the Polisario Front. He is one of 16 Saharawi political prisoners currently held in Moroccan jails.
In December 2002, Tamek waged a hunger strike demanding to be recognized as a political prisoner. After a broad campaign, Moroccan authorities transferred him to a jail in Rabat, Moroccos capital, and granted him his own cell. The Moroccan government, however, transferred him in May to a prison with worse conditions, a move that Tamek and supporters of his fight around the world have condemned.
The independence fighter was imprisoned twice previously. In 1993 at the age of 19 he attempted, along with a group of young Saharawis from the occupied zone, to escape and join the Polisario Front. They were caught by the Moroccan army along the border with Algeria and he was jailed for a year.
He made a second attempt to escape the occupied territory and join the freedom fighters in 1997. Caught at the border, he was again thrown in jail. This time, under the pressure of an international campaign on his behalf, the Moroccan authorities released Tamek after a month in prison.
On Aug. 26, 2002, Tamek presented Moroccan authorities with a petition demanding to be allowed to run in the legislative elections as a representative of a newly formed party, the Unified Socialist Left-Wing Party, which includes among its members a number of former political prisoners. He was arrested on the spot and sentenced 15 days later to two years in prison.
Tamek is also a member of the Forum for Truth and Justice Western Sahara Section, an organization founded in 2000 to expose internationally the brutality of the Moroccan regime. The group played a key role in mounting the international campaign that led to the release of the longest-held Western Saharan political prisoner, Sidi Mohamed Daddach, in November 2001after 23 years in Moroccan prisons.
The Moroccan government has tried to break up the group. Three of its leadersSalek Bazaid, Moussamih Baba, and Bourhil Mohamed Lamine were arrested in 2002 and sentenced to 10 years in prison. This was the most severe sentence to be imposed on independence fighters in the occupied territories since 1999.
Conditions in occupied zone
The majority of the native population of Western Sahara, nearly 200,000 in total, lives in exile in camps in Tindouf, Algeria.
The official population of Moroccan-occupied Western Sahara is approximately 262,000, but Rabat refuses to count separately the native Saharawi population from those who settled there as part of the Moroccan occupation. According to figures collected by the UN, some 82,000 people in the occupied territory claimed Saharawi ancestry.
Their conditions are worse than the rest of the population, said Mohamed Cheikh, the general secretary of the Saharawi trade union federation Ujtsario, which organizes Saharawi workers both in the refugee camps and inside the occupied zone. They have an unemployment rate of something like 60 percent. Many are forced to live on relief and workers face repression just for fighting for union rights.
Cheikh said that three of the 24 members of the Ujtsario general council are living in the occupied zone. He explained that the Saharawi workers who are living under Moroccos boot have made a vital contribution to the independence struggle, forming an important source of supplies, intelligence, and a base of resistance to the occupiers.
In 1996 some 200 Saharawi workers at the phosphate mines in Bou Craa, among the largest deposits of the ore in the world, went on strike for better working conditions and against the plunder of their national wealth. Miners occupied the headquarters of the owners and then faced reprisals from the Moroccan regime for their strike. A small minority of the mining jobs are held by Saharawis today, Cheikh said.
In the fall of 2001 Moroccan king Mohammed VI visited Western Sahara for the first time, sparking a wave of protests. Dozens were rounded up for participating in sit-ins and other protest activity. Twenty-three of those arrested in these protests participated in a hunger strike at Al Ayoun prison in December of that year.
The strike at Al Ayoun, by 131 Saharawi prisoners held there, shone a light on the conditions that these prisoners face. They were protested the overcrowding, filth, and brutal treatment by the Moroccan police. The prison, which was built to house between 200 and 250 inmates, held over 700 at the time of the protest. They were also protesting the torture that Saharawi prisoners are routinely subjected to at the hands of the prison authorities.
In November 2002 the relatives of Boucetta Mohamed Barka, 35, a Saharawi prisoner who was serving an eight-month sentence at Al Ayoun prison on a minor charge, were informed by Moroccan authorities that he had died in prison. When Barkas family members came to retrieve the body, they found his corpse still handcuffed and covered with burn marks and bruises. His family reported that he had been in good health when they visited him two days before and he told them then that he was being subjected to torture on a daily basis.
Thousands of Saharawis were disappeared by Rabat in the course of the 28-year independence fight. The monarchy reserves this practice not only for members of the independence movement, but also for anyone who falls out of favor with King Mohammed VI.
After years of denying they existed, the Moroccan regime released 300 of the disappeared in 1991, the same year Rabat signed a cease-fire with Polisario. Today, the International Office for the Respect of Human Rights in Western Sahara (BIRDSHO) has a list of 526 Saharawis who are disappeared and remain unaccounted for.
The existence of hundreds of Polisario fighters who were captured in battle has also been denied by the Moroccan government. In 1996, 66 of these POWs were released. Polisario says some 150 more are still being held incommunicado by Morocco, a claim the Moroccan authorities deny.
Twenty of these freed POWs met with participants in the congress and told their stories of life in Moroccan prison. Many were held as long as 18 years with no contact with each other or the outside world until 1993, when Rabat admitted their existence and negotiations began for their release.
Over the past several months Polisario has released 543 Moroccan POWs that the independence fighters captured in the course of the 16-year war. More than 600 remain in POW camps near Tindouf. The Moroccan government has refused to negotiate in any meaningful way for their release.
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