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Prospects for a settlement of the dispute in Western Sahara dimmed in 2002, as international consensus on the issue fractured and the Moroccan government declared for the first time that it will not accept a long-awaited UN-sponsored referendum to determine the future of this mineral-rich desert territory. Abuses by Moroccan security forces in the territory declined somewhat during the year.
Western Sahara was a Spanish colony from 1884 until 1975, when Spain withdrew from the territory after two years of bloody conflict with the Polisario Front (Frente Popular para la Liberation del Sagiat al-Hamra Rio de Oro). The following year, Morocco and Mauritania partitioned the territory under a tripartite agreement with Spain, but Polisario declared the establishment of an independent Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) and fought to expel foreign forces. Mauritania signed a peace agreement with Polisario in 1979, prompting Morocco to seize Mauritania's section of the territory.
In 1991, the United Nations brokered an agreement between Morocco and Polisario that provided for a cease-fire and the holding of a referendum on independence in January 1992, to be supervised by the newly formed Mission for a Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO). However, the referendum was repeatedly postponed after Morocco insisted that the list of eligible voters include an additional 48,000 people who, according to Polisario and most international observers, were Moroccan nationals.
The process remained deadlocked for more than a decade as the Moroccans sought in various ways to undercut domestic and international support for the independence of Western Sahara. The late King Hassan II had offered free housing and salaries to Saharawis who relocated from the territory to Morocco. Since the ascension of King Mohammed VI in 1999, Morocco has released hundreds of Saharawi political prisoners and allowed limited activity by Saharawi human rights groups. The king regularly tours the territory, and his government has financed projects to ease unemployment in the region.
Morocco's bid to win international recognition for its claim to Western Sahara has been boosted by its role in the war on terror. In October 2001, the kingdom signed deals with French and U.S. oil companies allowing for exploration off the coast of Western Sahara. In December, French president Jacques Chirac publicly referred to Western Sahara as the "southern provinces of Morocco." Since the attacks of September 11, 2001, on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the United States has exerted considerable pressure on Algeria to withhold support for Polisario and has been urging members of the UN Security Council to drop their support for a referendum and back an autonomy plan introduced in June 2001 by the UN special envoy to the region, former U.S. secretary of state James Baker. The Baker plan would give the territory autonomy under Moroccan rule for a period of five years and put off final status negotiations. However, intense U.S. lobbying and threats to cut funding to MINURSO during the first half of 2002 won support for the autonomy plan from only five other members of the Security Council (Britain, France, Cameroon, Guinea, and Norway), and the mandate of MINURSO was extended for another six months in July.
A vigorous campaign by Morocco to undercut support for Polisario in Africa, where two dozen governments have officially recognized the SADR, also met with failure in 2002. The king waived $120 million in debt owed to Morocco by African countries and even hinted that he would allow Algeria access to the Atlantic coast to transport oil if it renounced support for the rebel group. However, at the inaugural meeting of the newly formed African Union (AU) in July, African heads of state not only admitted the SADR as a member, but elected SADR president Mohammed Abdelaziz as one of five AU vice presidents.
In a November 2002 speech, King Mohammed for the first time publicly rejected the idea of holding a referendum to allow the Saharawi people to vote on the question of independence, calling the plan "out of date" because of the "growing support of the international community" for Moroccan sovereignty over the region.
Polisario is equally defiant in its rejection of any settlement short of a fair referendum. The group is emboldened not only by the support of African and other developing countries for Saharawi self-determination, but also by recent developments in a small island on the other side of the globe. In May 2002, the people of East Timor formally gained independence after decades of struggle, with no foreign allies and little international interest in their plight. Saharawi nationalists invariably draw the same conclusion from the experience of East Timor--no wait is too long.
Saharawis have never been allowed to elect their own government. The four provinces of Western Sahara have held local elections organized and controlled by the Moroccan government, and pro-Moroccan Saharawis fill the seats reserved for Western Sahara in the Moroccan legislature.
Saharawis are subject to Moroccan law, though many legal protections, such as the maximum limit of 72 hours for incommunicado detention, are not observed in practice. Around 450 Saharawis who disappeared at the hands of Moroccan security prior to the early 1990s remain unaccounted for. Around 170,000 Saharawis have fled the territory and now live in makeshift refugee camps in southwest Algeria.
Although human rights groups report greater freedom from repression in recent years, arbitrary killing, arrest, detention, and torture by Moroccan security forces continued in 2002. In March, security forces reportedly opened fire on civilian cars in the area of Guelta Zemmour, killing one Saharawi civilian and wounding several others. Two leading members of the Western Sahara branch of the Forum for Truth and Justice (FVJSS), Abdessalam Dimaoui and Ahmed Nasiri, were arrested during the summer and reportedly beaten by police in an attempt to force them to sign statements admitting they had instigated violence at an antigovernment protest the previous year. Dimaoui was later acquitted after nearly two months in detention, while Nasiri was sentenced to 18 months in prison. In June, Mohammed Haboub Mouilid (alias Tirsal) was arrested at a checkpoint outside the Saharawi town of Smara and detained for 48 hours after returning from a meeting of the FVJSS in Rabat. Ali Salem Tamek, a member of the FVJSS, was arrested in August and subsequently sentenced to two years in prison for "undermining the internal security of the State." In November, a 35-year-old Saharawi prisoner, Boucetta Mohamed Barka (alias Chaybani) died in prison in Laayoune. According to his family, Chaybani's body showed signs of having been tortured. Several hunger strikes were carried out by Saharawi prisoners during the year.
Torture and other abuses by Polisario forces, including arbitrary killing, have been reported in the past, but most cases have not been verified. Polisario holds 1,362 Moroccan prisoners of war in 6 centers in Tindouf, Algeria, and in Polisario-controlled areas of Western Sahara. In January 2002, Polisario released 115 Moroccan POWs.
Freedoms of expression, assembly, and association are severely restricted in Western Sahara. Political parties, nongovernmental organizations, and private media are virtually nonexistent, and suspected pro-independence activists and opponents of the government, including former political prisoners, are subject to surveillance and harassment. In May 2002, Moroccan forces forcibly dispersed a crowd of mourners attending a prayer service in memory of the late Polisario representative to the United Kingdom and Ireland, Fadel Ismail, who had died one year earlier. According to Polisario, dozens of Saharawis were arrested, interrogated, and tortured. In September, five members of the Sahara Unemployed Association, which fights discrimination against native Saharawis in the local job market, were sentenced to prison terms of up to one year on charges of disrupting public order.
The overwhelming majority of Sahrawis are Sunni Muslim, and freedom of worship is generally respected by the Moroccan authorities. Restrictions on religious freedom in the Western Sahara are similar to those found in Morocco. There is little verifiable information on the status of women in Western Sahara, though it is known that they are active in Polisario.