Activists demand release of Sahrawi human rights defender

Mahfouda Bamba Lefkir, a prominent human rights activist from Sahrawi, has been arrested and sentenced to six months in prison by Moroccan authorities

December 17, 2019 by Peoples Dispatch
Mahfouda Bamba Lefkir

Human rights defenders and activists in Western Sahara and internationally are demanding the immediate and unconditional release of Mahfouda Bamba Lefkir, a prominent Sahrawi human rights activist who was arrested and sentenced by Moroccan authorities last month. Lefkir’s detention and imprisonment is believed to be politically motivated as she has been politically targeted and physically assaulted by the Moroccan authorities in the past for standing up against its occupation and illegal detention of activists.

According to reports, Lefkir tried to object to the sentencing of fellow activists, Mohammed Lamine Salik Bechri and Mansour Othman Moussaouli, in the courtroom on November 15 and she was arrested under the pretense of “assaulting an officer.” Following her arrest, she was allegedly interrogated by the King’s prosecutor in the courtroom itself and later transferred to a local police station where she was interrogated for several hours by the judicial police. On November 16, she was transferred to the Lakhal prison where remains detained till today.

On November 27, she was sentenced to six months in prison by a First Instance court in Laayoune in Western Sahara for “obstruction of justice” and “humiliation of a public official”. This sentence was upheld by an appeals court on December 12.

Activists have pointed to several violations of due process and fundamental rights throughout the process. Lefkir was denied access to a lawyer for the first five days of her detention. She has also been denied access to medical care and her daily medication, which has greatly complicated her existing health problems. During her transfer from the courtroom to the police station following her arrest, she was subjected to physical abuse and humiliation by police officers.

Speaking to Peoples Dispatch, Sidi Essbai, a member of the Sahrawi Collective of Defenders of Human Rights (Codesa) explained that “the occupying power in Western Sahara [Morocco] agreed to a retrial after massive protests against Lefkir’s sentencing. The trial failed to meet the minimum requirements of a just and fair trial as it was kept under secrecy to avoid popular reactions of Saharawis, human rights NGOs and the international community.” He added that his organization demanded her immediate release.   

Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic is a partially recognized state on the western coast of Africa and was an erstwhile Spanish colony of Western Sahara. While the Polisario Front-led war of independence finally forced Spain out of the country, it was only after the Front signed a peace deal with Mauritania that it was able to create a state in the eastern parts of Western Sahara in 1979. The western part of this region is currently under the territorial control of Morocco, where the court in Laayoune that sentenced Lefkir has jurisdiction. However, the people of the Morocco-controlled areas of Sahrawi continue to struggle for the liberation of their territory.

Lefkir has a long history of fighting against the Moroccan state’s occupation of Sahrawi land. She is a member of the Akdim Izik Collective, a group formed in 2017 with the objective of defending persecuted political activists, and also a member of the Moroccan Association for Human Rights (AMDH).