Laayoune is the largest settlement in Western Sahara territory, which has been occupied by Morocco since 1975.
The Sahrawi people continue to demand independence after decades of poor treatment under Moroccan rule. Many Sahrawi report being routinely subjected to police brutality and say they suffer widespread discrimination.
Activists in Laayoune face a day-to-day struggle with local authorities. The city is touted by the Moroccan government as a regional development hub, but from the ground looks more like an infantry barracks.
The police station is like an enormous shopping mall. Soldiers are everywhere, patrolling the main streets.
Over the past year the situation has become increasingly tense, with opposition to the Moroccan government leading to frequent demonstrations in the streets. Sahrawi activists have repeatedly said their organised protests are peaceful until the police or military intervene.
On January 13, one such intervention left dozens of Sahrawi injured, local activists said. Protesters rallied against the postponement of a verdict on the continued jailing of several Sahrawi people in the notorious Sale prison.
Demonstrators said a police crackdown outside the office of the ruling Justice and Development Party left many activists injured.
Mallett-Outtrim visited Laayoune during January. The day after the protest, he was shown these activists’ injuries. The first stop was the Hadad household, where Said Hadad was being nursed by his family.
During the police crackdown, Hadad and his family said he sustained a cranial injury. He explained that riot police had beaten him with batons during the peaceful demonstration.
Hadad’s mother said that at a hospital, Moroccan staff refused to treat him. She said staff instructed her to take Hadad to the police. The family refused, opting instead to treat him at home.
The family produced clothing Hadad said he was wearing during the alleged assault. The clothes were covered in dry blood. Hadad said this was not the first time he had been beaten by police for protesting.
Another activist, 30-year-old Hamadi Fileli, also said he had been injured during the police intervention. He too showed clothing he said he was wearing on the day a caftan and jacket covered in dry blood.
Three women, Fatimato Tawbali, Arlana Mahjob Fadi and Baida Mohmad Sidialhaj, took part in the same demonstration. All said they were subject to police brutality. They all showed bruising.
These were not the only activists injured during the January 13 crackdown. On January 21, Kabara Abdati Babayt was being nursed by her mother on the floor of the living room in her family home. She said she had been struck by a police baton in the torso during the demonstration.
Lhbib Salhi, a Sahrawi trade unionist, said he was struck in the head and leg by riot police.
In a written statement translated by a friend who cannot be named, Sahrawi activist Hjabouha Hasana Taglabout said she was beaten by police shortly after the protest.
She said that at 9.30pm that day, six plain-clothed police “demolished the door” to her home. “[A police officer] beats me on my arms, neck, head,” Taglabout said.
Activists Toumi Salama and Salma Mohmed Oubeid said they were subject to police brutality during previous demonstrations. Oubeid said that on December 22, she was collected by an ambulance after being beaten by police during another Laayoune protest.
She described how police continued to attack her in the ambulance on the way to the hospital. They only stopped when a paramedic intervened. After the January 13 protest, she said police threatened her with torture.
Reports of police brutality during the January 13 protest are only the latest allegations stemming from a series of violent crackdowns by Moroccan forces.
In November, a Human Rights Watch report said: “Moroccan security forces repeatedly beat and abused people they detained following disturbances on November 8, 2010, in the Western Sahara capital city of El-Ayoun [Laayoune]”.
In a November 26 report, Human Rights Watch said after “the initial violent confrontations, Moroccan security forces participated with Moroccan civilians in retaliatory attacks on civilians and homes, and blocked wounded Sahrawis from seeking medical treatment”.
Abdelhay Toubali, a long-time human rights campaigner and member of the Sahrawi Committee for the Peace Settlement and the Protection of Natural Resources, is all too familiar with the difficulties activists face in occupied Western Sahara.
Toubali applauded the recent decision of the European Union parliament to vote against the controversial EU/Moroccan fisheries deal last year. He urged Australians to follow suit and reconsider the unethical and potentially illegal trade in phosphate sourced from Western Sahara.
He said international complicity with Morocco’s exploitation of Western Saharan resources was having a detrimental effect on the ground in Laayoune.
“The [indigenous Sahrawi] … don’t benefit anything from the resources of Western Sahara,” Toubali said on January 14. “All the people who benefit … are the [Moroccan] settlers and government.”
Other Sahrawi people Mallett-Outtrim spoke to all implored Australians to stop supporting the potentially illegal import of phosphate. The Moroccan-owned OCP company is the only exporter of phosphate from occupied Western Sahara.
“We demand the Australian government put an end to their co-operation with the Moroccan government,” Toubali.
Speaking in Algiers in October, president of the International Commission of Jurists John Dowd said importing Western Saharan resources was highly detrimental to the implementation of international norms in the region.
Dowd said, in accordance with the United Nations General Assembly Resolution 1514, “trade with Morocco for Western Saharan natural resources perpetuates the denial of the Sahrawi people their right to self-determination as a former colonial ruled people”.
Incitec Pivot, Impact Fertilisers and CSBP all import phosphate sourced from Western Sahara into Australia.
These companies have rejected past demands from activists to end the illegal and unethical import of Western Saharan phosphate.
The regime supported by Incitec Pivot, Impact Fertilisers and CSBP has scarred one family more than most.
Said Dambar, a young Sahrawi activist, was shot by police last year. An officer was given a 15-year sentence by a Moroccan court, but the family is dissatisfied.
Dambar’s sister, Mattou Dambar, said on January 5 that she remains sceptical over the circumstances of her brother’s death. For nearly a year, the family have been petitioning the Moroccan authorities for an autopsy, but have been repeatedly refused.
Mattou and her mother expressed suspicion towards the Moroccan authorities. They said there are recurrent attacks on their house in Laayoune, which they blame on their continuing campaign for justice.
The Dambar family say on May 19 last year, uniformed and plain clothed police attacked their home during a sit-in demonstration. Footage of the attack was filmed by human rights activists and can be seen at Freesahara.ning.com.
Mattou said: “They attacked the house before the sit-in. We said we would [be] beginning at five o’clock exactly. At half past four they attacked the house.
“They attacked the people who were there … the older men, the older women, they attacked my mum.
“Really, really … I didn’t believe what I’m watching. How they can attack a peaceful sit-in?
We didn’t do anything wrong, just to say it’s illegal to leave my brother in the morgue till now. It’s illegal to refuse to have an autopsy for my brother that’s all.
Mattou also expressed fear that further reprisals may occur in the future. However, “nothing will let us give up”.
“We have a right to ask for [an autopsy].”
Her mother agrees, and in an interview in her home, she made an “urgent appeal to the international community”.
She urged for an international boycott of Western Saharan resources extracted by Moroccan companies, including phosphate.
“Mothers all over the world,” she said, should support such a boycott in hopes that the fate of her son will not be shared by other activists.
[Ryan Mallett-Outtrim and Laura Gilbie are members of Resistance, socialist youth organisation in Adelaide. Mallett-Outtrim visited Western Sahara in January.]