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January 16, 2024

The repression of activists in the Western Sahara goes through Italy too: the story of Mohamed Dihani

Insight by Marco Biondi

«I call myself an activist forced to be one». This is how Mohamed Dihani, a defender of human rights and self-determination of the Sahrawi people, a former political prisoner, a victim of arbitrary detention and torture for his peaceful activism, puts it. His story begins many years ago in El'Aiun in the Saharawi Republic, a region of Western Sahara disputed since the end of Spanish colonialism between the Polisario Front resistance group and Morocco, which has occupied it militarily on several occasions. «In Saharawi there is systematic oppression on all levels, which inevitably pushes you to be an activist», Dihani explains to Voice Over Foundation.

Dihani's story of activism began when he was a child. At the age of 10, he was arrested for the first time for taking part in a peaceful demonstration for the self-determination of the Sahrawi people. Then, with his father, he moved to Italy in 2002 for 6 years, with a residence permit to be able to work. In 2008, he returned to Morocco and was reunited with his family but in 2010, Dihani was arrested again in El'Aiun without a warrant and without being told the reason for his arrest.

Mohamed refused to cooperate with Moroccan intelligence which wanted to obtain information on the Polisario Front, and was thus arbitrarily detained until 2015, following a judicial course marked by serious irregularities, as Amnesty International has documented: physical and psychological torture, extorted confessions. «I uploaded recordings on YouTube about what I was suffering in prison with a mobile phone I had obtained inside the prison. These videos were also published by some newspapers like Al Jazeera and organisations such as Amnesty. As a result, I was sent to total solitary confinement for four years, only allowed out for medical treatment or to briefly visit family members. In 2015, when I got out of prison, together with two activist friends I founded a news website, Western Sahara Times, but we were forced to close it down because of constant hacker attacks», Dihani says.

The arbitrary nature of his detention was also recognized by the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, which, as reported by Amnesty, “urged the Moroccan government to release him immediately, to carry out an independent and impartial investigation into acts of torture, and to award full compensation for the physical and psychological damage caused by inhuman and degrading treatment”. The UN document substantiated that Dihani was accused of planning terrorist attacks in Denmark and Italy, but that “the Moroccan authorities have never sought the cooperation of these states to confirm these allegations”.

Dihani was released from prison in 2015 and he chose to further denounce human rights violations committed by the Moroccan authorities, such as the repression of dissent through assault, torture, arbitrary detention, and false accusations. Supported by Amnesty, Dihani applied in 2018 for a medical visa to travel to Italy to undergo various treatments that would allow him to cure the physical and psychological consequences of the torture he suffered in prison. However, the Italian consulate in Casablanca refused the visa, justifying the refusal with an illegitimate alert in the European database for border management (SIS, Schengen Information System, EU's most widely used information sharing system). "The following years, the Italian authorities stated that the reasons for the alert against the activist could not be revealed because these were based on a confidential and secret file," as stated by Amnesty Italy.

Thanks to the Amnesty International's support program for human rights defenders at risk, since 2019 Mohamed Dihani has been able to temporarily take refuge in Tunisia to protect himself from the Moroccan authorities' continuous persecution, while waiting to be able to cancel the alert on the Schengen blacklist that hindered his entry into Italy and his subsequent request for international protection. During his stay in Tunisia, Mohamed Dihani has never interrupted his political activism but there have been difficulties. In fact, the Tunisian authorities, under pressure from the Moroccan authorities, intimidated Dihani several times by threatening him with forced repatriation to his home country, where he would risk being subjected again to torture and inhuman and degrading treatment. «I did not feel safe even in Tunisia. They kidnapped me several times, but several associations managed to stop my repatriation to Morocco», Dihani says. In 2020, 211 organizations signed an open letter to the President of Tunisia, demanding him not to accept Dihani's extradition request to Morocco and insisting on the fact that “confessions of crimes obtained through torture and without the support of material evidence are contrary to Articles 9 and 11 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and Articles 9 and 14 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights”.

His right to apply for international protection in Italy was recognized in 2022 by two court orders in Rome, which required the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to issue an entry visa to Italy. As his lawyers Andrea Dini Modigliani and Cleo Maria Feoli explained to Melting Pot, “the ordinances recognized the large scale of persecution by the Moroccan authorities against Sahrawi activists”. In May 2023, however, the Territorial Commission of Rome rejected his request for international protection, considering Morocco a safe country. Dihani is currently facing a double judicial process: “on the one hand, he has asked the judicial authorities to delete the personal data contained in the SIS II database; on the other, he has appealed against the decision to reject his request for international protection”, says Amnesty.

The inclusion of Mohammed Dihani’s data in the Schengen "black list" raises serious questions about the relations between Moroccan intelligence and European states. The corruption scandal dubbed Qatargate, which broke out at the end of 2022, has revealed disturbing relations between some European politicians and the governments of Qatar and Morocco, leading to the arrest of the then Vice-President of the European Parliament Eva Kaili, former Member of Parliament Pier Antonio Panzeri, and other suspects, who are currently out of prison and are under house arrest.

As reported on Maroc Leaks’ website, the Moroccan secret services put pressure on some officials and members of the European Parliament to make the necessary decisions to promote economic agreements with Morocco, the country's human rights image and to implement the annexation and autonomy plan related to Western Sahara». In fact, even today, the process of self-determination of the Sahrawi people remains at a standstill despite multiple resolutions, including 1991 Security Council Resolution n.690, which created the United Nations Mission for the Western Sahara Referendum (MINURSO) to operate in the territory annexed by Morocco in 1975 and in the Sahrawi refugee camps in Tindouf, south-west Algeria.

What has emerged in recent years is the Moroccan authorities’ control on human rights activists and journalists. As reported by Oubi Bouchraya, a Western Sahara activist, "the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention has called for the release of dozens of Saharawi activists'' from the Gdeim Izik group, who were arrested in 2010 for participating in the protests that initiated the so-called Arab Spring in Western Sahara. The Working Group confirmed the presence of several human rights violations, such as the denial of the right of these people - including journalists - to talk to their lawyers, confessions extracted under torture, the lack of impartiality and independence of the court. One of the prisoners, sentenced to life imprisonment, is the Secretary General of the Committee for the Protection of the Natural Resources of Western Sahara. As reported by Western Sahara Resource Watch, the United Nations Committee on Torture has already published decisions concerning five prisoners of Gdeim Izik: Mohammed Bani, Abdeljalil Laaroussi, Naama Asfari, Mohammed Bourial and Sidi Abdallahi Abbahah, denouncing the torture and use of signed confessions under torture as a basis for their detention. Another similar case is Omar Radi’s, who is an independent investigative journalist who has dealt with social movements such as Hirak-El Rif, and state corruption. 

As confirmed by an Amnesty’s investigation, Radi had been spied on his phone by the Moroccan government through the use of Pegasus, a malware produced by the Israeli company Nso, specialised in the development of surveillance technologies. Radi was sentenced to six years in prison on unfounded charges of espionage by the Dutch Government (which the Netherlands Government also denied) and rape. "Numerous studies and repeated cases that have come to light in the last year tell a different story, where the favourite targets of NSO customers are rather activists and journalists. Among these activists, still in Morocco, there is Maâti Monjib, historian and co-founder of the Freedom Now movement, and the lawyer Abdessadak El Bouchattaoui, involved in the defence of protesters arrested during the Hirak movement’s protests, between 2016 and 2017", Cecilia Anesi and Raffaele Angius wrote on Internazionale.

The story of Dihani, other activists in Morocco, and the Sahrawi people, once again denotes Italy’s and the EU’s disinterest towards an effective and coherent defence of human rights according to international law, mostly showing the inadequacy of the criteria adopted to decide whether a country is objectively safe and whether a person has the right to receive protection. As reported by Western Sahara Resource Watch, the resolution condemning the cases of Qatargate corruption "forgot" Morocco’s involvement: an amendment setting out the involvement of the Moroccan monarchy at the same level as the Qatari regime was rejected by the majority of the European Parliament, with 238 votes in favour, 257 votes against and 67 abstentions.

What are the reasons behind those double standards? Italy and the EU seem to prefer, no matter what, the protection of "fortress Europe" through the externalisation of borders to the effective protection of human rights, the same modus operandi seen in relations with other countries like Turkey.

A European Parliament resolution of 19 January 2023 on the situation of journalists in Morocco urged the Moroccan authorities to put an end to the surveillance of journalists by means such as the spyware Pegasus of the NSO Group, and urged Member States to cease exports of surveillance technology to Morocco, which is 136th out of 180 in the press freedom index of Reporters Without Borders. The repressive policies of the constitutional monarchy of Rabat are in fact linked to a series of surveillance technologies developed by other States and reinforced by bilateral agreements such as the memorandum signed with Israel in 2021 which provides for stronger cooperation in the areas of security and defence, especially in the areas of intelligence and military training. In 2021 the United States decided to add the Israeli company Nso Group to the federal blacklist, prohibiting the company from receiving US technology components.

According to Dihani, there are around 45 political prisoners in prison for their activism, but hundreds of people have stated that they are not activists to ask for a reduction of their sentence. «In addition to Pegasus, there is also another Italian company, Hacking Team, which, from 2011 to 2017, provided spying tools to the Moroccan government such as software named Da Vinci, used to hack into activists’ and journalists’ devices to take their personal data and use it to their own advantage», says Dihani. Morocco has been sold surveillance technology, as confirmed by surveys published by Citizen Lab and Privacy International, and documents obtained by a group of anonymous hackers. This technology can remotely infect phones and computers, steal data from them, take photos, and record conversations.

These events show how fundamental and fragile the right to privacy is, which is undermined by the intolerable secret surveillance of governments that want to repress activists and journalists and its essential role in guaranteeing collective rights such as freedom of expression, association and information, rights which the European Union sacrifices without even thinking about it in its international relations in exchange for the real priority: frontiers and walls to block migrants.

Editing: Sara Manisera

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