Kerry Kennedy turned her back to the human rights abuses of the Polisario

Sadly, Kerry Kennedy, the daughter of late senator Robert F. Kennedy. A Huffington Post blogger and president of the RFK Center for Justice and Human Rights, was skillfully manipulated by shadowy groups linked to terrorism. She was become a spokeswoman for a cause whose real agenda would terrify her, if she knew it.

She believes that she is standing up for the human rights of a dispossessed indigenous people (the Saharans) who are represented by a paramilitary force known as the Polisario Front. They live in a string of refugee camps near Tindouf, a settlement in Southern Algeria.

I’ve been to several Polisario camps in Algeria that Kennedy visited and I have heard their grievances. I’ve met and interviewed Mohammed Abdelazziz, the man who has ruled the Polisario since 1976. He has won a series of one-candidate elections ever since. He talks about “democracy” and “human rights,” as African dictators usually do—as an ideal that always remains firmly in the future.

The reality in Polisario camps is far from ideal: political opposition is not tolerated in its one-party elections, dissenters are forced to flee and their relatives lose their jobs. Poverty, except for lifestyles of its leaders, is total. The homes of ordinary residents are one-story, mud-brick structures with no running water. Often a radio will be powered by jumper cables hooked to a car battery. Young women dream of marrying Mauritanian traders and herders, who can actually offer them a better life, and young men, at least with ones without good connections to the Polisario leadership, talk about earning money by helping drug smugglers and militant groups.

In their custom, men must pay a very specific dowry in order to wed and one told me that his girlfriend has waited 8 years for him to earn enough to marry her. This poverty and oppression drives thousands of Saharans every year to risk their lives in the trackless desert, hoping to find a better life in another country.

Meanwhile, Abdelazziz lives in a walled concrete compound with thundering diesel generators providing 24-hour electricity. His staff ushered me into a large meeting room to await the leader. After several cups of tea, I was directed to a large tiled bathroom with flush toilet and working sink—unthinkable luxuries for the people living just outside his palace gates. Of course, he doesn’t live there full time, he admits. He has sumptuous places to stay in Spain and elsewhere in Europe.

Kennedy saw these same things and must have had many of the same conversations. Perhaps her “guides” wouldn’t let her have honest conversations with ordinary Saharans, but she should have been able to see Abdelazziz for what he is—a strongman in search of a shill.

Why didn’t she ask him why there will no opposition parties or critical media? Or why so many people flee the camps to live in the lands of their “oppressors”? Has she talked to any of those who have fled the Polisario camps, as I have? In Dakhla, in Southern Morocco, I met refugees who were surprised at the freedom and opportunity—and bitter about the hardships in the Polisario camps.

Did Kennedy ever hear of Moustapha Salim Ould Sidi Moulid, a brave Polisario official who publicly proposed opening talks to end the conflict between the Polisario and Morocco? The Polisario locked him up in 2010, declared him a traitor, and threatened his family. I spoke privately with his brother, who works in a Polisario camp. He said that he lost his job as a schoolteacher because he was related to a dissenter. Why doesn’t Kennedy ask to speak to him or to Sidi Moulid, who has been imprisoned without trial for almost two years?

Through her writings and statements, Kennedy has effectively become an advocate for the Polisario. She embraces the Polisario’s political vocabulary, referring to Southern Morocco as “Moroccan-occupied Sahara,” and trumpets their narrative of the conflict.

Kennedy was feted by the group last year during her visit to the Polisario stronghold near Tindouf. Kennedy routinely paints a black-and-white picture of the conflict, casting Moroccan soldiers as “thugs” and Polisario stalwarts as freedom fighters. She is taking sides in a conflict that she doesn’t seem to understand.

All of this would be a story as old as Jane Fonda visiting North Vietnam, a credulous celebrity falling for an extremist group promising liberation—except that the Polisario has been repeatedly and credibly linked to al Qaeda affiliates.