It has been
an unfortunate turn of fate - though hardly a surprising one - that the
established narrative of the 'Arab Spring' seems to have completely occluded
what could arguably be viewed as its first spark.
In October 2010 - a few weeks before that fateful December encounter in Sidi Bouzid between Mohamed Bouazizi and a municipal official - thousands of Sahrawi men, women and children set up Gdeim Izik, a camp a few miles East of Layyoune, the capital of occupied Western Sahara, in an act of mass protest against their continuing marginalisation under the decades-long Moroccan occupation of their land, as well as an effort to alert an indifferent international community to their plight.
Spanish withdrawal in 1975, and for most of the past quarter century, Western
Sahara seemed stoically resigned to its status as Africa's last, forgotten
colony. Moroccan occupation, despite being one of the world's longest, remained
one of its least reported and decried. As such, Gdeim Izik proved a
pivotal moment, exposing the official Moroccan line - that Sahrawis were both
happy with their lot and incapable of doing anything to change it anyway - and
garnering widespread admiration as the first such act of mass protest in the
region for years.
This perhaps explains the ruthlessness of the Moroccan response: on Nov 8, Moroccan security forces moved into the camp and, within a day, Gdeim Izik was gone, its tents torched and its residents forcibly moved away. There were dozens of casualties (including 11 Moroccan security officers) and hundreds of arrests. Twenty four human rights activists - most of whom were prominent civil society figures involved in setting up the camp - were detained and charged with a range of offences including "forming criminal gangs", "violence against the security forces leading to deaths" and "the mutilation of corpses".
In the two years since, and against the
protestations of local and international human rights campaigners and
organisations, the 24 defendants have been kept in harsh detention conditions,
reportedly tortured and forced to sign false confessions. To add insult to
their injuries, their trial, which took place earlier this month after a number
of delays, was held in a military rather than civilian court, reinforcing the
conclusions of most observers that this was no more than a textbook show trial
intended to deliver a lesson to any Sahrawis daring to
challenge Moroccan occupation.
Last week, on Saturday, 16 February, the Military Court of Rabat delivered its verdict, handing down nine life sentences and giving 14 defendants prison terms ranging between 20 and 30 years. (Two defendants were released after receiving 2-year sentences, which they had already served in detention). Amnesty International declared the trial "flawed at the outset"; its Deputy Director for the Middle East and North Africa, Ann Harrison, found it "disturbing" that the authorities had "ignored the Sahrawi defendants’ allegations of torture and coerced confessions."
Meanwhile, international media
indifference to the case has been striking. In the UK, the only reference in
the British mainstream press since the verdict has been a letter, published in the Guardian, from a number of prominent international campaigners
and politicians - including film director Ken Loach and British Labour MP
Jeremy Corbyn - calling the case "a travesty of justice" and "a
politically motivated show trial". The letter echoed Amnesty's
call for Moroccan authorities to order fair retrials in civilian courts
for all defendants and to "fully investigate their allegations of torture".
Although the defendants are expected to launch an appeal, the likelihood of a
fairer outcome remains negligible in the absence of international political
Of course, behind Morocco's cynical and opportunistic policies in the Western Sahara, including its conduct over Gdeim Izik, lies the west's enabling role in perpetuating and sustaining them. Yet this remains largely an unknown story: to look at the dearth of media coverage, the 'average' citizen could be forgiven for concluding that Western Sahara, its people and their decades-long struggle, were a fanciful figment of an NGO worker's imagination.
silences do not go unnoticed in the region, though: many commentators, notably
in Algeria, have drily noted the familiar dissonance between the west's florid
paeans to Arab freedoms and emancipation (not to mention its enthusiasm for
"humanitarian intervention" in Libya and Mali,) and its continuing
indifference to the plight of Sahrawis next door, whose struggle for
self-determination seems to generate no more than an impatient,
embarrassed shuffling of the feet.
In any case, one certainty remains: for most Sahrawis, Gdeim Izik might have been torched out of existence, but its legacy will continue to burn bright for a long time to come.