Polisario Front chief avoids custody, court exposes grave accusations

Court session put the separatist leader under an unflattering light with accusations of human rights abuses.
Tuesday 01/06/2021
People hold placards as they protest against Brahim Ghali, Polisario Front chief, outside Spanish High Court in Madrid, Spain, June 1, 2021. Placard reads ”No to the impunity of Brahim Ghali”. REUTERS
People hold placards as they protest against Brahim Ghali, Polisario Front chief, outside Spanish High Court in Madrid, Spain, June 1, 2021. Placard reads ”No to the impunity of Brahim Ghali”. (REUTERS)

MADRID – A Spanish court rejected provisional custody of Polisario chief Brahim Ghali but put the separatist leader under an unflattering light with accusations of grave human rights abuses.

Spain’s High Court on Tuesday turned down a prosecution request for leader of Algeria-backed Polisario Front Brahim Ghali to be taken into custody, saying the plaintiffs in a war crimes case have not provided evidence showing his responsibility.

“The prosecution report has not provided elements of evidence supporting the existence of reasons to believe he is responsible for any crime,” a court document said.

Shortly after the court rejected provisional custody for Ghali, Spanish government spokeswoman Maria Jesus Montero said her country hopes for diplomatic relations with Morocco to return to normality in the “coming hours.”  Nothing is however less certain with Rabat raising deeper issues of trust and ill-intent by Spain over Morocco’s sovereign rights.

Montero added that the government expects Ghali, who is currently receiving treatment for COVID-19 in a Spanish hospital, to return to where he came from once his health improves and wished him a speedy recovery.

Rabat summoned the Spanish ambassador on April 25 to demand an explanation and express concern at Ghali’s admittance to a Spanish hospital. In a statement on May 8, Rabat said it was a “premeditated act” that would have repercussions.

On May 31, Rabat said the hearing against Ghali was important to show “the real face of the Polisario”. The dispute with Spain was no longer simply about Ghali but over what it saw as Spanish disrespect over the Western Sahara issue, it said.

 Serious accusations 

The Polisario Front leader, who has been hospitalised in Spain for more than a month, appeared remotely before the court in Madrid as part of a case of war crimes against him and other Polisario Front leaders.

They are accused by human rights groups and Western Sahara individuals of genocide, murder, terrorism, torture and disappearances, a court document said.

One of the investigations relates to allegations of torture at Sahrawi refugee camps in Tindouf, a town in western Algeria.

The accusations were made in 2020 by Sahrawi activist Fadel Breika, who also holds Spanish nationality.

While a Spanish court initially rejected the complaint, earlier this year it agreed to reopen the case.

The second investigation relates to allegations of genocide, murder, terrorism, torture and disappearances made in 2007 by the Sahrawi Association for the Defence of Human Rights (ASADEDH), which is based in Spain.

Ghali rejects any wrongdoing, his lawyer Manuel Olle told reporters in Madrid after the hearing.

“The facts which form the basis of the accusation against him are absolutely and categorically untrue,” Olle said.

The lawyer asked for the case to be dropped.

— Concerns over flight risk —

The Polisario Front leader has been treated in a hospital in Logrono, in northern Spain, after being diagnosed with COVID-19.

The move, which the Spanish government says was a humanitarian gesture, has angered Morocco.

Ghali’s Algeria-backed Polisario Front is fighting for control over Western Sahara, which was a Spanish colony until the mid-1970s and is since considered by Morocco as part of its own territory.

Tuesday’s proceedings were a preliminary hearing, the first step toward a potential trial.

During the hearing, the judge refused to impose any precautionary measures — such as seizing Ghali’s passport — arguing there was no flight risk.

Mariana Delmas, a lawyer for the prosecution, said she had sought preventative measures against Ghali to stop him leaving the country.

“I asked for them because it is very clear to me, it looks to me that he will flee,” she told reporters.

Olle said his client, who travels on an Algerian diplomatic passport, will stay in Spain until the case is resolved. He insisted Ghali is still in poor health.

Rabat has already warned the Spanish government that allowing Ghali to “go home, bypass Spanish justice and ignore the victims” would further worsen ties.

In 2016, Ghali was summoned for questioning in relation to the second complaint when he was due to attend a conference in Spain in support of the Sahrawi people. He eventually cancelled his trip.

Rabat considers Ghali to be a “war criminal”, and Morocco’s foreign ministry said Monday that his presence in Spain was a “test” for bilateral ties, warning the crisis would “not be resolved with a single court hearing.” And it reiterated demands for a “transparent investigation” into Ghali’s arrival in Spain on what it said was a forged passport.