The dossier of the Moroccan prisoners sequestered by the Polisario in the camps of Tindouf is one of the most serious issues in the area of Human rights violations in the last 30 years. This question demonstrates the extent to which the Polisario scoffs at the most elementary rules of humanitarian international law. According to humanitarian organisations, the number of Moroccan detainees amounted, between 1976 and 1991, to 2200 prisoners. Some of them were taken to prison during combat, whereas others through several incursions upon Moroccan territory. Coupled with these "war prisoners" are civilians who have been deported to the camps of sequestration. In the year 2003, the NGO France-Libertés, which was presided over by Mrs Danielle Mitterrand, prepared an overwhelming report on the situation of detainees, a situation which is described all along the aforementioned report as utterly dramatic and inhuman.

I. Non-Respect for Imprisonment Sentences

The right relative to war is regulated in pursuance of the four Geneva Conventions, dated August 12, 1949, as well as by its protocols in addenda. As to the situation of war prisoners, it is regulated by the Geneva Convention (III).

Given that the Polisario is a separatist movement, it has declared its commitment to put into practice this Convention through the letter that it sent over to the Security Council in 1975. Such is a means that substitutes for the procedure of ratification of international conventions with regard to those groups that are devoid of the quality of State (fronts, movements and such like). In view of this, the Polisario had to liberate the Moroccan prisoners following the ceasefire agreement that came into force in 1991, in compliance with the provisions of the third Geneva Convention. However, this operation did not take place. Ten years after, in 2001 more precisely, the Security Council addressed to the Polisario an injunction exhorting it to observe the aforementioned Convention, and to proceed to the unconditional liberation of the totality of Moroccan prisoners, as well as their repatriation to their homeland, all of which it was supposed to do as of the end of hostilities.

When Morocco and the Polisario decided to accept the UN Settlement Plan, they agreed to put a stop to hostilities. In conformity with this move, the UN Mission for the Organisation of a Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO) was tasked with supervising respect for the cease-fire. At the same time, it was agreed that the parties exchange their "prisoners of war" as soon as the cease-fire came into effect. However, the Moroccan prisoners were liberated in reduced groups, the fact being that the Polisario scheduled its partial liberations of the prisoners in question in function of its propagandist interests as well as on the basis of some political bargaining. In 1995, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) made a census of no less than 2155 Moroccan prisoners that were to be found in the camps of Tindouf, with some 200 prisoners that could not be taken in the census, so they were considered to have been missing.

In the year 2003, the number of Moroccan prisoners in the Tindouf camps amounted to what was close to 1175, some of whom were taken prisoners for 27 years. The Human Rights Watch NGO (HRW) paid a visit, in 1955, to these camps in order to enquire about the situation of the Moroccan "war prisoners". It could; however, visit but two of these camps, the Mohammed Lessyed and the Hamdi Abacheikh centres. According to some on-site witnesses, only these two centres were open to foreign observers, because the detention conditions there are relatively favourable in comparison with other centres: a carefully furnished façade that serves propaganda purposes for the Polisario. Some observers have in fact noted that the prisoners were afraid to freely express themselves in the presence of the HRW observers.

II. Corporal and Psychological Torture

Article 13 of the Geneva Convention (III) ordains the parties in an armed conflict to treat war prisoners in a humane manner during the period of their detention. It also condemns whatever line of behaviour, be it in the form of an abstention or a prohibition, which appears such as to do harm to the life or the health of a prisoner; it likewise proscribes physical torture for any cause whatsoever.

According the ONG France-Libertés, all the Moroccan prisoners that were detained by the Polisario were exposed to torture during interrogations. In 1981, sergeant Zebda was killed under the pretext that he had stolen cigarettes, and so was the same fate for the prisoner Abdellatif Marrakchi under the pretext that had stolen some jam.

We could cite here a multitude of cases of corporal torture of Moroccan prisoners, as reported by France-Libertés (blows and injuries, physical brutality, etc.). The same report has revealed that the Algerian servicemen would participate to the torture sessions that involve the Moroccan prisoners, many of whom had been detained in the Algerian prisons up until 1994, in Boufarik, in Jalfa camp, and in Boughari, which are situated at 300 km, 150 km south of Algiers, respectively. There the Moroccan prisoners were subject to inhuman treatments.

According to France-Libertés, the Algerian servicemen tortured the Moroccan prisoners, many of whom passed away as a result of the hard labour to which they were subjugated to. Among these victims, there figures Ibrahim Tabia, who was executed in 1983 after he had manifested some psychological disorder because of the ill-treatment he was a victim of. Other prisoners, 26 in number, had to bear the same predicament for the simple reason that they had tried to flee the detention camps, when Article 13 of the Geneva Convention (III) prohibits this kind of treatment.

The Polisario would use several methods of psychological torture against the Moroccan prisoners, methods such as humiliating them in public and using them for propaganda purposes against Morocco. Acts such as these are condemned by Article 13 of the aforementioned Convention. The latter prescribes the obligation to protect prisoners from all type of violent or debasing behaviour, acts of injury and such like. The sequels of such behaviour were quite perceptible on the prisoners when they were paid visits by humanitarian NGO's.

III. The Precariousness of Life as well as Work Conditions

The food rations given to the Moroccan war prisoners during their detention were insalubrious and poor in terms of nutritive value, which accounts for the symptoms of malnutrition that practically all of them have shown. Some of them were seen to have been compelled to work for Sahrawi families in return for foodstuffs. This type of treatment is condemned by Article 26 of the Geneva Convention (III), which prescribes the necessity to abide by certain conditions in connection with nutrition.

Among the hard labour that was imposed upon the Moroccan prisoners, one could cite the fabrication of bricks for the construction of infrastructure for the Polisario; every prisoner had to make 120 bricks per day. There worked in each workshop some 20 to 300 prisoners. The latter were woken up at 4 in the morning. They could only attend to their vital needs during the time they were awake. Moreover, it was forbidden for them to stop or to drink water. The detention centre Haddad, south of Tindouf, was thus constructed by the Moroccan prisoners in the lapse of 45 days, in 1982, with 200 prisoners working there on end, day and night.

The Moroccan prisoners have thus been subjugated to the worst treatments on the part of the Polisario. The fact of the matter was that they could receive no remuneration for the works they performed, not to speak of the torrid heat under which they would spend whole days. Naturally, these conditions ineluctably lead to death. Article 62 of the aforementioned Convention provides for the necessity to earmark some remuneration to prisoners in proportion to the works that they would accomplish.

In the same vein, France-Libertés has guarded against the flagrant violation of Article 50 of the Geneva Convention (III), which disallows the use of prisoners in military action. The latter were in fact tasked with accomplishing acts of this kind, of which the fact of digging out trenches in the Ouarkziz region and the maintenance of military equipment are but two examples.

As concerns the question of dress and sleep, the fact is that the delegation of France-Libertés noted that the prisoners were in the most absolute destitution; nay, the barracks that they served as dormitories for them were generally lacking in roofs. This happens at a time when Article 51 of the Geneva Convention prescribes that the powers to be prepare adequate conditions for prisoners on what concerns lodging, food and work conditions.

Thus, it transpires that the violations of humanitarian international law perpetrated by the Polisario are numerous and variegated. On the one hand, the Polisario has not complied with the liberation of war prisoners after the cessation of hostilities in 1991. In fact, partial liberations had continued up until the year 2005, that is, 14 years after the date initially agreed upon. On the other hand, the Polisario has transgressed several provisions of the Geneva Convention (III) by treating the prisoners in such a degrading and inhumane manner, when it initially said to have been bound by the provisions of this convention in 1975.

Algeria assumes a great share of responsibility in these war crimes. Though it says it does not partake of the conflict, it, in reality, does. It is part of the conflict, for the Moroccan prisoners could be found upon its territory, where Algeria exercised its sovereignty. No matter what, Tindouf remains thus a territory under the supervision of the Algerian ministry of defence, which does not take away the responsibility that Algeria has for the flagrant violation of the Third Geneva Convention.

Hassan Khattabi
Professor at Hassan 1st University, Settat