The trial of 24 Sahrawi civilians before a military court in Morocco is flawed from the outset Amnesty International said today as it called for the defendants to be tried in a civilian court and for an investigation into their torture allegations.
All of the group, which includes several activists, are on trial in Rabat today in relation to violence during and after the dismantling of the Gdim Izik protest camp near Laayoune, Western Sahara in November 2010, when 11 members of the security forces and two Sahrawis were killed.
Most of the defendants have said that they were tortured and otherwise ill-treated at different stages of their two-year pre-trial detention. Some are said to have been coerced into signing statements.
"The trial of civilians before a military court does not meet internationally recognized standards for a fair trial. The 24 accused must be brought before a civilian court with all the human rights guarantees that go along with it, and in no event must anyone be sentenced to death," said Philip Luther, Amnesty International's Director of the Middle East and North Africa.
"Allegations of the torture of detainees must be investigated and any evidence obtained under torture must be dismissed by the court. The authorities must also launch an independent and impartial investigation into the events of Gdim Izik, which is already two years too late."
The 24 - including members of Sahrawi civil society organizations and Sahrawi political activists - face charges including belonging to a criminal organization, violence against a public official and the desecration of a corpse.
The crime of violence against a public official can be punished by the death penalty when such violence leads to intentional death.
On 8 November 2010, violence broke out when Moroccan security forces tried forcibly to remove people from and dismantle the Gdim Izik protest camp a few kilometres east of the town of Laayoune, in the Moroccan-administered Western Sahara.
The Gdim Izik camp had been set up in early October by Sahrawis protesting against their perceived marginalization and demanding jobs and adequate housing.
Eleven members of the security forces and two Sahrawi's were killed during the violence.
Some 200 Sahrawis were arrested by the security forces during and days after the violence. Further arrests were also made in December.
Most of those arrested were released but the 24 on trial today have already spent two years in pre-trial detention in Rabat's Sale prison.
In December 2010 Amnesty International published a report following a fact-finding visit to Morocco and Western Sahara to investigate allegations of human rights abuses committed on and in relation to the events of 8 November at Gdim Izik and Laayoune.
Following its review of Morocco in December 2011, the UN Committee against Torture stated that Morocco "should put in place stronger measures for ensuring prompt, thorough, impartial and effective investigations into the violence and deaths that occurred during the dismantlement of the Gdim Izik camp and ensure that those responsible are brought to justice" and that Morocco "should amend its laws to guarantee that all civilians will be tried only in civilian courts."
During his visit to Morocco and Western Sahara in September 2012, Juan Mendez, the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture noted that prosecutors and investigative judges rarely investigate allegations that torture was used to obtain evidence or confessions during the initial stages of interrogations.
Juan Mendez stated that "The complaint system regarding allegations of torture and ill-treatment and investigation, prosecution and punishment of perpetrators, with the exception of a very few cases, seems to be in law only," and that "this gap between law and practice must be closed."