Tunisian students campaign to end detention of Saharawi peers

The Union Générale Tunisienne des Etudiants (UGTE), a student union in Tunisia, has joined an international campaign launched by the Saharawi student union La Página Oficial de Estudiantes Saharauis (UESARIO) earlier in April in which they advocate for an end to Morocco’s arrests of Western Sahara students who support the right to self-determination for the Saharawi people.

Saharawi student activists have been arrested and imprisoned in response to their support for the right to self-determination for the people of Western Sahara through political campaigning, street protests and demonstrations.

The Human Rights Watch publication, World Report 2023: Morocco and Western Sahara, has raised alarm about the responses to these protests: “Western Sahara remained a taboo issue, with draconian laws used by prosecutors to punish even peaceful advocacy for self-determination.”

Western Sahara, a former Spanish colony, is a sparsely populated desert area on the north-west coast of Africa. Under international law, it is considered a non self-governing territory that still has to be fully decolonised.

Morocco has occupied northern Western Sahara since 1975 and considers the area as part of its territory and sovereignty due to historical ties. Since then, it has been the subject of a long-running territorial dispute between Morocco and its indigenous Saharawi people, led by the Polisario Front – the Western Sahara’s pro-independence movement.

UESARIO operates in Saharawi refugee camps in Tindouf, Algeria, organising youths within the exiled community and promoting their interest.

Detained students

In a statement, Laith Al-Khazr, the president of the Tunisian student union, said: “We support the struggles of the student movement of Western Sahara against the Morocco regime for the right of the Saharawi people to self-determination, condemn the repressive approach against student activists and announce our unconditional solidarity with the political student detainees.”

He called for the immediate cessation of ongoing student arrests and the empowerment of detainees to advocate for fair trials. Al-Khazr also called upon student movements worldwide to support the international solidarity campaign launched by UESARIO in support of detainees.

The campaign, according to Al-Khazr, was launched after an imprisoned student, Al-Bashir Hussein Ibrahim Amamdour, (known as Saddam), went on a hunger strike for a month-and-a-half about the right of detainees to fair trials and the immediate release of student political prisoners.

The 29-year-old political activist, who has been vocal in his opposition to the Moroccan occupation, and a law student at Ibn Zahr University in Agadir, Morocco, immigrated via a death boat to Spain seeking political asylum in 2019, but the Spanish authorities handed him over to their Moroccan counterparts which sentenced him to 12 years in prison, according to Algeria News agency.

His hunger strike started on 20 February to protest against the administrators of the Ait Melloul Prison for various actions, including the racial targeting of prisoners.

In another recent incident, a complaint was lodged with the United Nations Special Procedures in December 2022 against Moroccan authorities on behalf of 10 imprisoned Saharawi students.

International campaign

UESARIO’s international campaign to support Western Sahara student detainees in Morocco entails hashtags such as #SaveSaddame, Detained Students’ Stories as well as videos such as The Battle of the Open Hunger Strike, along with disseminating information from Facebook pages such as the Committee of Families and Comrades of Politically Detained Students.

While a protest was organised inside Western Sahara on 29 March, on 1 April, the Saharawi community in French Guiana organised a stand in solidarity with the Saharawi political prisoners.

Concern over the plight of student detainees had been raised by the Norwegian Support Committee for Western Sahara in 2020, when it published a report entitled, Imprisoned students … Personal stories of a group of Saharawi students held in Moroccan jails, in partnership with the National Union of Students in Norway. In the report, students speak about their engagement in the Saharawi struggle until the day that their student campaigns at universities in Morocco led them to detention, torture, forced confessions and year-long sentences under bad prison conditions.

Also in 2020, the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Imprisonment called for students from Western Sahara to be immediately released from Moroccan prisons as the arrest and detention of the youths were a breach of their basic human rights.