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World

Two years, two months and nine days in hell

Taki Elmachdoufi was released after serving a prison sentence in the Gdeim Izik case, a turning point for Sahrawis in the occupied Western Sahara. Here, he gives his account of torture and beatings in Moroccan custody.

Having spent all his life in Western Sahara, 28-year-old Taki Elmachdoufi knows all too well what life under occupation can be like. He and other Sahrawi activists who take to the streets to demand that the promised referendum on self-determination is held are routinely beaten, arrested and sometimes tortured by Moroccan police.

Ethnic Sahrawis complain of social and economic marginalization in Western Sahara,

a claim that is denied by the Moroccan authorities: Morocco, they say, has invested huge sums of money in developing the capital El Aaiun and the rest of Western Sahara.

But unemployment is rife among the Sahrawis who say that all the jobs go to Moroccans moving here from the north to benefit from the cheap housing and the better job opportunities - benefits that many Sahrawis see as part of a Moroccan plan to make the indigenous population even more of a minority than it already is.

They started the fire

A turning point for the Sahrawis, who today make up about 10 percent of the 500,000-strong population in Moroccan-controlled Western Sahara, was the creation of Gdeim Izik camp in autumn 2010.

This event is seen by some commentators as the initial spark of the uprisings that swept the Arab world in 2010 and 2011.

Up to 30,000 Sahrawis participated in the protest camp that was set up in the desert a few miles from El Aaiun. An attempt to get the attention of an indifferent international community, Gdeim Izik quickly became the largest Sahrawi mass protest to date against discrimination and marginalization under decades of Moroccan occupation.

Graffiti on a wall Copyright: Ane Nordentoft/TRANSTERRA Media

The Sahrawis are demanding self-determination after decades of living under Moroccan rule

Taki Elmachdoufi went to the camp with his family to take part in the peaceful demonstration against Moroccan rule in Western Sahara.

"In the camp we got a taste of freedom. We felt like the generations that came before us must have felt. We did not feel the oppression or the pressure from the Moroccan police. We felt free," he says.

But that feeling didn't last. As the protests grew larger, Moroccan security forces surrounded the camp, and on November 8, 2010, police entered Gdeim Izik with tear gas and water cannons. Tents were torched or bulldozed, and demonstrators were beaten. In the clashes that followed, 11 Moroccan security forces and four Sahrawi protesters were reportedly killed.

The nightmare begins

Taki Elmachdoufi walked all the way back to El Aaiun on foot, accompanied by thousands of other Sahrawis. He had been home for less than two hours when police entered his house and arrested him.

"I don't know why they took me. But they tortured me for two hours and then dragged me into a car, where they continued to beat me," he says.

The police drove him to the gendarmerie headquarters in the desert. Taki Elmachdoufi says he noticed two other men who had been given thorough beatings, before he was pushed to the ground and the abuse continued.

"The policemen surrounded me and began to hit me. There were so many men standing around me and kicking me that I could hardly see the sun. I was afraid they would kill me."

Bruised and bloody, Taki was taken to a prison where about 100 Sahrawi men were locked up in a cell the size of an average living room. The floor was stained with blood. For the next five days, the men were held there without water.

"We weren't allowed to go to the bathroom. Some pissed in a bucket of water. When the guards saw this, they laughed and forced an elderly man to drink the water."

Taki Elmachdoufi explains how he was taken into a small room for interrogation. Each time he denied the allegations against him, a police officer would give him a hard blow to the head. According to Elmachdoufi, he was eventually forced to sign a confession, but without being allowed to read it first.

After the five days, Elmachdoufi was taken to the airport and put on a flight from El Aaiun to Rabat.

Rule of law?

In Rabat, Elmachdoufi was brought before a military investigating judge where he first found out about the accusations against him. According to the confession he says he had been forced to sign, he belonged to a criminal gang and was an accomplice in the killing of a policeman.

Elmachdoufi pleaded not guilty after which he and the other prisoners were taken to their cells. Out of the hundreds that were arrested after the police cleared the Gdeim Izik camp, 25 were to stand trial for their alleged involvement in the killings of Moroccan security officers. Several of the indicted were prominent Sahrawi activists.

boy holding flag Foto: EPA/MOHAMED MESSARA

Fighting for freedom

For the next five months, Elmachdoufi says, he wasn't allowed out of his cell.

For an entire month, his family had no idea where he was. They finally got the news of his arrest and traveled the 600 miles from El Aaiun to Rabat to see him. But the prisoners were only allowed visits for 10 minutes, says Elmachdoufi.

Hunger strike

After five months of solitary confinement, the Gdeim Izik prisoners were allowed to go outside their cells for 15 minutes every Friday. They met in the courtyard and immediately agreed to begin a hunger strike in order to raise awareness about their conditions.

The hunger strike was covered by both Moroccan and international media and ended after 19 days, when the prison management caved in and allowed the Sahrawi prisoners to have a teapot and a radio in their cells as well as a change of clothes. The management said the prisoners would get longer visits, be allowed to receive food from their families and come out of their cells for one hour a day.

"But of course they lied to us. We never got what they promised us, so we began a new hunger strike that lasted 34 days. Eventually we were so weakened that we could not move," Elmachdoufi recalls.

As the Sahrawi prisoners grew weaker and weaker, the prison governor made the same promises again. After 34 days, the authorities gave in out of fear that some of the prisoners would die. They allowed the Sahrawi prisoners to watch TV, get more recreational time outside, shower twice a week and get longer visits from their families.

The trial

After two years of pre-trial detention, the trial of the 25 accused began in February 2013. Amnesty International strongly criticized the trial of civilians before a Moroccan military court, allegedly using forced confessions without a thorough and independent investigation. There was no evidence against the accused, indeed proceedings almost turned farcical as the court was told that the Sahrawis were accused of a total of nine cases of rape or threats of rape.

"The evidence they presented in court had nothing to do with us. We asked them to show us a single fingerprint on one of the weapons that were allegedly used in the killings of police officers. They displayed a radio and all sorts of other items that had no links to us or to the killings," says Elmachdoufi.

Human Rights Watch also followed the trial and pointed out the lack of solid evidence: none of the prosecution witnesses could identify any of the defendants as responsible for violent actions, while video and photographic evidence shown in court showed scenes of violence but did not appear to identify the defendants committing crimes. In addition the weapons that the prosecution presented in court as evidence were not forensically linked to the defendants.

people celebrating copyright: FADEL SENNA/AFP/Getty Images)

The verdict, after a trial, often described as farcial, meant that Elmachdoufi was a free man

"The verdict appears to rest on the defendants' contested confessions to the police," wrote Human Rights Watch.

Both Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have pointed out the need to investigate the allegations that torture was used to obtain confessions from the 25 Sahrawis. Moroccan authorities have so far not responded to these calls, nor have they initiated an independent investigation into the events at Gdeim Izik.

After a week in court the sentences were passed: Nine Sahrawis were sentenced to life in prison, 14 others got between 20 and 30 years in prison, while the last two were each handed sentences of two years in prison.

Taki Elmachdoufi was sentenced to two years in prison for assaulting a police officer, but was released because he had already been in custody for more than two years.

"When they came and told me I was a free man, I started to cry. All my friends were still in prison. We have been through so much, we have become like family. I know them and know that they could never kill anyone."

Editor's note: Several details in Taki Elmachdoufi's story can't be confirmed by other sources as access to the prisoners was limited. However, Human Rights Watch has heard a similar account from Taki Elmachdoufi right after his release and has - along with Amnesty International, the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights and numerous other human rights organisations - criticized Morocco for the use of torture and other ill-treatment as well as unfair trials, arbitrary arrests, repression of civilians and restricted freedom of expression.

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