The Kingdom of Morocco claims the territory of Western Sahara and administers the estimated 75 percent of that territory that it controls. The Popular Front for the Liberation of Saguia el Hamra and Rio de Oro (POLISARIO), an organization that seeks the territory’s independence, disputes Morocco’s claim to sovereignty over the territory. Moroccan and POLISARIO forces fought intermittently from 1975, when Spain relinquished colonial authority over the territory, until a 1991 cease-fire and the establishment of a UN peacekeeping mission. The United Nations convened an initial roundtable meeting on December 5-6, which UN Personal Envoy of the Secretary-General Horst Koehler labeled a step towards a renewed political process on the future of Western Sahara.
Morocco administers the territories in Western Sahara by the same laws and structures governing the exercise of civil liberties and political and economic rights as in internationally recognized Morocco. Morocco is a constitutional monarchy with a parliamentary national legislative system under which ultimate authority rests with King Mohammed VI, who presides over the Council of Ministers. The king shares executive authority with the head of government (prime minister) Saadeddine El Othmani. According to the constitution, the king appoints the head of government from the political party with the most seats in parliament and approves members of the government nominated by the head of government. International and local observers judged the 2016 parliamentary elections, held in both internationally recognized Morocco and Western Sahara, credible and relatively free from irregularities.
Moroccan civilian authorities maintained effective control over security forces.
Human rights issues were predominantly the same as those in internationally recognized Morocco, including allegations of torture by some members of the security forces, although the government condemned the practice and made substantial efforts to investigate and address any reports; allegations that there were political prisoners; undue limits on freedom of expression, including criminalization of certain content that criticized the monarchy and the government’s position regarding territorial integrity; limits on freedom of assembly and association; and corruption.
The lack of reports of investigations or prosecutions of human rights abuses by Moroccan officials in Western Sahara, whether in the security services or elsewhere in the government, contributed to a widespread perception of impunity.
Section 1. Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including Freedom from:
a. Arbitrary Deprivation of Life and other Unlawful or Politically Motivated Killings
There were no reports that the Moroccan government or its agents committed arbitrary or unlawful killings.
There were no reports of disappearances by or on behalf of Moroccan government authorities during the year.
During the year the Laayoune branch of the National Council on Human Rights (CNDH), a publicly funded Moroccan national human rights institution, continued to investigate individual claims of disappearances dating from the 1970s through the 1980s. When warranted, the CNDH recommended reparations in the form of money, health care, employment, or vocational training to victims of forced disappearance (or victims’ families) from previous years. According to the CNDH, the government allocated additional funds this year to the CNDH for reparations to individuals (or their living beneficiaries) not previously compensated due to technical errors in the work of the now-defunct Truth and Reconciliation Commission. In addition to direct financial compensation, the government funded professional reinsertion and medical assistance programs as well as recovered stolen assets as reparations to individuals or their living family members that the commission identified.
The International Committee of the Red Cross worked as a neutral intermediary with the parties and families regarding the cases of persons still unaccounted for. For more information on unresolved disappearances dating from the 1970s, see the Department of State’s 2018 Country Reports on Human Rights for Morocco.
c. Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment
Moroccan law and practice apply. The Moroccan constitution and Moroccan law prohibit such practices, and the government of Morocco denies it authorizes the use of torture.
In the event of an accusation of torture, Moroccan law requires judges to refer a detainee to a forensic medical expert when the detainee or lawyer requests it or if judges notice suspicious physical marks on a detainee. Local and international human rights advocates claimed that Moroccan courts often refused to order medical examinations or to consider medical examination results in such cases. According to local and international nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), Moroccan authorities did not always investigate complaints, and medical personnel sometimes failed to document traces of injuries from torture and abuse.
Reports of torture have declined over the last several years, although Moroccan government institutions and NGOs continued to receive reports about the mistreatment of individuals in official custody. Reports of mistreatment occurred most frequently in pretrial detention. Most accusations stated that degrading treatment occurred during or following proindependence demonstrations or protests calling for the release of alleged political prisoners.
The October 3 UN secretary-general’s report noted that the OHCHR continued to receive reports alleging lack of accountability for human rights violations, including allegations of torture. The Laayoune branch of the CNDH received five complaints relating to allegations of torture or mistreatment and sent letters about these claims to the local branches of the Moroccan Prison Administration (DGAPR), which oversees prisons in the territory. The status of investigation into these allegations was unknown at year’s end.
Prison and Detention Center Conditions
Prison and detention center conditions generally mirrored those in internationally recognized Morocco. Conditions improved during the year, but in some cases they did not meet international standards. For more information, see the Department of State’s 2018 Country Reports on Human Rights for Morocco.
Physical Conditions: Prison and detention center conditions generally were similar to those in internationally recognized Morocco.
Families of detainees from Western Sahara charged that they faced unusually harsh prison conditions. The DGAPR contested this claim and asserted that prisoners in Western Sahara and Sahrawi prisoners in internationally recognized Morocco received the same treatment as all other prisoners under DGAPR authority.
Police arrested 23 Sahrawi individuals during the 2010 dismantling of the Gdeim Izik Camp and subsequent violence in Laayoune that resulted in the death of 11 members of the security forces; the individuals have been detained since their arrest. In 2016 the UN Committee against Torture declared that Morocco had violated its treaty obligations in Gdeim Izik detainee Naama Asfari’s case, alleging that he was convicted by the military court based on a confession obtained under torture and that no adequate investigation was conducted. In 2017 the civilian court, as part of the new trial, offered medical exams in accordance with the Istanbul Protocol to look for residual signs of torture to the 21 individuals who remained in detention from the group’s 2010 arrests and interrogations; however, Asfari declined to participate. Reports on the 15 detainees who willingly participated in the exams were admitted as evidence at the trial, and no link was found between the detainees’ complaints and the alleged torture. As of October 1, the Court of Cassation was in the process of reviewing the appeals to the verdicts the Court of Appeals in Rabat issued in July 2017.
On February 13, Asfari was placed in solitary confinement. On July 31, the Committee’s rapporteur on reprisals decided to continue a dialogue with the government on the case. On August 13, the UN secretary general released an annual report on allegations of reprisals and intimidation saying that Asfari’s treatment in detention had reportedly deteriorated.
For more information, see the Department of State’s 2018 Country Reports on Human Rights for Morocco.
Administration: Moroccan law and practice apply. While authorities generally permitted relatives and friends to visit prisoners, there were reports that authorities denied visiting privileges in some instances. The DGAPR assigned each prisoner to a risk classification level, which determined visiting privileges. At all classifications, prisoners may receive visits, although the length, frequency, and number of visitors may vary. Most prisons assigned each prisoner a designated “visit day” to manage the number of visits to the prison. The DGAPR authorizes religious observances and services provided by religious leaders for all prisoners, including religious minorities.
Independent Monitoring: The CNDH conducted 24 monitoring visits to prisons in or near Western Sahara from April 2017 to March. According to the DGAPR, various NGOs conducted 20 monitoring visits from January through June.
The CNDH received two complaints of prison staff mistreating detainees in the local prison in Laayoune and conducted five site visits. The CNDH found the prison to be overcrowded and insufficiently equipped to provide appropriate living conditions to the detainees and recommended that the government build a new prison in the city.
Improvements: According to the CNDH, in December 2017 the government built a new prison in the city of Smara and built a new healthcare facility staffed by a permanent doctor at Taouerta prison in Dakhla. For more information, see the Department of State’s 2018 Country Reports on Human Rights for Morocco.
d. Arbitrary Arrest or Detention
Moroccan law and practice apply. Moroccan law prohibits arbitrary arrest and detention and provides for the right of any person to challenge in court the lawfulness of his or her arrest or detention. Observers indicated that police did not always respect these provisions or consistently observe due process, particularly during and in the wake of protests. According to local NGOs and associations, police sometimes arrested persons without warrants or while wearing civilian clothing. The October 3 UN secretary-general’s report on Western Sahara cited claims by some local NGOs alleging a lack of accountability for human rights violations perpetrated against Sahrawis, including arbitrary arrests.
On June 29, the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention released an opinion in favor of the appeal submitted by Freedom Now and the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Foundation on behalf of Mohamed al-Bambary. Al-Bambary was arrested in 2015 and sentenced to 12 years for charges including forming a criminal gang and participating in a murder during riots that followed a 2011 football match. In 2016 the Laayoune Appeals Court of Second Instance upheld the 2015 conviction, but reduced the sentence to six years. The UN working group concluded that al-Bambary’s arrest and detention constituted an arbitrary deprivation of liberty. According to the May 2017 petition submitted by Freedom Now and the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Foundation, al-Bambary is a media activist (not a registered journalist) and was arrested in 2015 without being presented an arrest warrant or informed of the charges against him.
ROLE OF THE POLICE AND SECURITY APPARATUS
Moroccan law and practice apply. For more information, see the Department of State’s 2018 Country Reports on Human Rights for Morocco.
Human rights organizations continued to track alleged abusers who remained in leadership positions or who had been transferred to other positions. International and local human rights organizations claimed that authorities dismissed many complaints of abuse and relied only on police statements. Government officials generally did not provide information on the outcome of complaints. The CNDH and the Prison Administration reported human rights training for prison officials and members of the security forces in Western Sahara.
ARREST PROCEDURES AND TREATMENT OF DETAINEES
Moroccan law and practice apply. For more information, see the Department of State’s 2018 Country Reports on Human Rights for Morocco.
Arbitrary Arrest: Security forces often detained groups of individuals, took them to a police station, questioned them for several hours, and released them without charge.
NGOs reported several cases of alleged arbitrary arrest and detention, particularly following proindependence demonstrations, although there were fewer allegations than in previous years. Authorities argued that such temporary detentions without charges were not arbitrary but legal under Moroccan law, which allows detention of suspects without charge for preliminary investigations for up to six days for non-terrorism-related crimes, and 12 days for terrorism-related crimes. Detentions noted by local NGOs were generally less than six days.
Pretrial Detention: Conditions generally were similar to those in internationally recognized Morocco, with large proportions of detainees in pretrial detention; the government of Morocco does not disaggregate statistics for Western Sahara. For more information, see the Department of State’s 2018 Country Reports on Human Rights for Morocco.
Detainee’s Ability to Challenge Lawfulness of Detention before a Court: Moroccan law and practice apply. For more information, see the Department of State’s 2018 Country Reports on Human Rights for Morocco.
e. Denial of Fair Public Trial
Moroccan law and practice apply. The Moroccan constitution provides for an independent judiciary, and, as in previous years, NGOs asserted that corruption and extrajudicial influence weakened judicial independence. The Supreme Judicial Council, mandated by the 2011 constitution, manages the courts and day-to-day judicial affairs in place of the Ministry of Justice. The president of the Court of Cassation (the highest court of appeals) chairs the 20-member body. Additional members include the president of the First Chamber of the Court of Cassation; the prosecutor general (equivalent of the attorney general); the mediator (national ombudsman); the president of the CNDH; 10 members elected by the country’s judges; and five members appointed by the king. In October the Supreme Judicial Council established its internal mechanisms and began the process of taking over day-to-day management and oversight from the Ministry of Justice, although the activities of the Supreme Judicial Council experienced delays due to administrative and legal impediments. While the government stated the aim of creating the council was to improve judicial independence, its effect on judicial independence was not clear. According to media reports and human rights activists, outcomes of trials in which the government had a strong interest, such as those touching on Islam as it related to political life and national security, the legitimacy of the monarchy, and Western Sahara, sometimes appeared predetermined.
As of October 1, the Court of Cassation was in the process of reviewing the appeals to the verdicts the Court of Appeals in Rabat issued in July 2017 against 23 Sahrawi individuals arrested during the 2010 dismantling of the Gdeim Izik Camp. The sentences the civilian Court of Appeals in Rabat issued ranged from time already served to life imprisonment. The individuals had been previously convicted in a military trial in 2013. A 2015 revision of the Code on Military Justice eliminated military trials for civilians, and in 2016 the Court of Cassation ruled on appeal that the group should receive a new civilian trial. Two received reduced sentences (from 25 years to 4.5 years and 6.5 years) and were released, joining two others whose 2013 sentences of time served were confirmed by the civilian court. Two other individuals also received reduced sentences (from 30 years to 25 years and from 25 years to 20 years). In November 2017 the CNDH determined that the December 2016 to July 2017 trial hearings met the conditions of a fair trial as indicated in the Moroccan Constitution and Article 14 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
Moroccan law and practice apply. For more information, see the Department of State’s 2018 Country Reports on Human Rights for Morocco.
POLITICAL PRISONERS AND DETAINEES
Moroccan law and practice apply. Moroccan law does not define or recognize the concept of a political prisoner. The Moroccan government did not consider any of its prisoners to be political prisoners and stated it had charged or convicted all individuals in prison under criminal law. For more information, see the Department of State’s 2018 Country Reports on Human Rights for Morocco.
Human rights and proindependence groups considered a number of imprisoned Sahrawis to be political prisoners. This number included the Gdeim Izik prisoners (see section 1.e.) as well as members of Sahrawi rights or proindependence organizations.
CIVIL JUDICIAL PROCEDURES AND REMEDIES
f. Arbitrary or Unlawful Interference with Privacy, Family, Home, or Correspondence
Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
b. Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association
Moroccan law applies. As in internationally recognized Morocco, the Moroccan government limited freedoms of peaceful assembly and association.
FREEDOM OF PEACEFUL ASSEMBLY
Moroccan law provides for the right of peaceful assembly. The government generally permitted authorized and unauthorized peaceful demonstrations to occur. According to Moroccan law, groups of more than three persons require authorization from the Ministry of Interior to protest publicly. As in internationally recognized Morocco, some NGOs complained that the government used administrative delays and other methods to suppress or discourage unwanted peaceful assembly. Security forces intervened on occasion to disband both authorized and unauthorized protests when officials deemed the demonstration a threat to public security. The October 3 UN secretary-general’s report on Western Sahara cited claims by some local NGOs that Moroccan security forces had forcibly dispersed demonstrations related to the right to self-determination, the disposal of natural wealth and resources, and the rights of detainees.
Several proindependence organizations and some human rights NGOs stated that in recent years the submission of applications for permits to hold demonstrations declined because police rarely granted them. In most cases the organizers proceeded with planned demonstrations in the absence of authorization, and there was no discernable difference in security forces’ reaction to authorized or unauthorized protests. Violent confrontations between security forces and protesters were less common than in previous years, according to several local NGOs, although violent dispersals did occur on occasion. Security force practices were similar to those in internationally recognized Morocco; however, in Western Sahara there was often a higher ratio of members of security forces to protesters.
The CNDH’s three regional commissions monitored 52 demonstrations from April 2017 to March and concluded that the security forces’ use of violence to disperse demonstrations decreased during the year.
FREEDOM OF ASSOCIATION
Moroccan law and practice apply. Generally, the government denied official recognition to NGOs that it considered advocates against Islam’s status as the state religion, the legitimacy of the monarchy, or Morocco’s territorial integrity. Authorities noted that 418 organizations were registered in Laayoune and 288 in Dakhla, the two largest cities in Western Sahara. The Laayoune branch of the CNDH reported that it received complaints from three organizations that were denied registration during the year. The branches contacted government authorities and following mediation, one of the organizations in Laayoune was in the process of being registered. According to the CNDH, of the 10 organizations denied registration in 2017, five were registered, one was in the process of being registered, two were referred to judiciary, and two did not receive a response as of September.
The government tolerated activities of several unregistered organizations.
c. Freedom of Religion
See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.
d. Freedom of Movement, Internally Displaced Persons, Protection of Refugees, and Stateless Persons
Moroccan law and practice applies. Moroccan law provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, and the government generally respected these rights. NGOs and activists alleged that Moroccan authorities sometimes restricted access to Western Sahara for foreign visitors, including journalists and human rights defenders. The government of Morocco claimed it only restricted access when such visits challenged Morocco’s territorial integrity or were perceived to be a threat to internal security and stability. According to the government, authorities granted access to 13,844 foreigners traveling to Laayoune from January to August 2018. As of September several human rights organizations reported that authorities denied access to five foreigners traveling to Laayoune. The government confirmed it expelled six foreigners from Laayoune in 2017 for threatening internal stability and failing to meet immigration requirements.
On May 11, Moroccan authorities denied two Swedish activists entry into Western Sahara to meet with the Sahrawi Association of Victims of Grave Human Rights Violations Committed by the Moroccan State (ASVVDH). According to media reports, the activists planned to conduct a field visit as representatives of Emmaus Stockholm, their Swedish organization, which funded an ASVVDH project in 2017. The government reported the activists were denied entry in accordance with immigration law and in the interest of maintaining public order in the territory. The government reported the activists had ties with POLISARIO and that their visit was political, to document local activists observing the 45th anniversary of the creation of POLISARIO.
The government continued to make travel documents available to Sahrawis, and there were no reported cases of authorities preventing Sahrawis from traveling. The government of Morocco encouraged the return of Sahrawi refugees from abroad if they acknowledged the government’s authority over Western Sahara. Those refugees wishing to return must obtain the appropriate travel or identity documents at a Moroccan consulate abroad, often in Mauritania.
PROTECTION OF REFUGEES
Section 3. Freedom to Participate in the Political Process
Elections and Political Participation
Recent Elections: In 2016 Morocco held direct elections for the Chamber of Representatives (the lower house of parliament). Registered voters in Western Sahara elected representatives to fill 13 regionally designated seats and for parties’ candidates to fill the nationally allocated quotas for women and youth representatives. The major political parties and local observers considered the elections free, fair, and transparent. International observers considered the elections credible, noting voters were able to choose freely, and deemed the process relatively free of irregularities.
Participation of Women and Minorities: Moroccan law and practice apply. No Moroccan laws limit participation of women or members of minorities in the political process, and participation of women and minorities was similar to that in internationally recognized Morocco. A substantial number of candidates for elected offices self-identified as Sahrawi. For more information, see the Department of State’s 2018 Country Reports on Human Rights for Morocco.
Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government
Moroccan law and practice apply. Moroccan law provides criminal penalties for corruption by officials, but the government generally did not implement the law effectively. Officials sometimes engaged in corrupt practices with impunity. For more information, see the Department of State’s 2018 Country Reports on Human Rights for Morocco.
Corruption: Development spending and military officers’ involvement in private business created susceptibility to corruption, as well as opportunities for impunity, in Western Sahara. The government and state-owned enterprises were the territory’s principal employers, and residents sought civil service jobs and taxi licenses through personal contacts within the government.
Financial Disclosure: Moroccan law and practice apply. For more information, see the Department of State’s 2018 Country Reports on Human Rights for Morocco.
Section 5. Governmental Attitude Regarding International and Nongovernmental Investigation of Alleged Violations of Human Rights
The government generally tolerated but did not recognize local NGOs that exhibited proindependence or pro-POLISARIO views.
The United Nations or Other International Bodies: The Moroccan government cooperated with the United Nations and permitted requested visits.
Government Human Rights Bodies: The same government human rights bodies operated in the territory as in internationally recognized Morocco. For more information, see the Department of State’s 2018 Country Reports on Human Rights for Morocco.
Via its regional offices in Dakhla and Laayoune, the CNDH continued to carry out a range of activities, including monitoring demonstrations, visiting prisons and medical centers, and organizing capacity-building activities for various stakeholders. It also maintained contact with unrecognized NGOs. The CNDH also occasionally investigated cases raised by unrecognized NGOs, especially those that drew internet or international media attention.
Section 6. Discrimination, Societal Abuses, and Trafficking in Persons
Section 7. Worker Rights
a. Freedom of Association and the Right to Collective Bargaining
The government and employers generally respected freedom of association; Moroccan unions covering all sectors were present but active only in the phosphate and fishing industries. The largest trade union confederations maintained a nominal presence in Laayoune and Dakhla, and most union members were employees of the Moroccan government or state-owned organizations.
b. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor
c. Prohibition of Child Labor and Minimum Age for Employment
The Moroccan government continued to invest in education in the territory through the Tayssir cash assistance program and continued to provide child protection services through the second phase of the National Initiative for Human Development Support Project. Residents of Western Sahara received more assistance per capita from this program than persons living in internationally recognized Morocco.
d. Discrimination with Respect to Employment and Occupation
There were anecdotal reports that Sahrawis faced discrimination in hiring and promotion.
e. Acceptable Conditions of Work
As an inducement to relocate to the territory, workers in the formal sector earned up to 85 percent more than their counterparts in internationally recognized Morocco. The government also provided fuel subsidies and exempted workers from income and value-added taxes.