Spain’s hosting of Polisario leader exacerbates tensions with Morocco

Morocco summoned Sunday Spain’s ambassador to Rabat, Ricardo Díez-Hochleitner Rodríguez to protest against Madrid’s hosting of Brahim Ghali for medical treatment.

Monday 26/04/2021
A file picture of Polisario chief Brahim Ghali. (AFP)
A file picture of Polisario chief Brahim Ghali. (AFP)

RABAT - Spain’s hosting of Polisario Front leader Brahim Ghali for medical treatment has exacerbated tensions with Morocco.

These tensions first arose at the end of last year after Madrid announced its rejection of the US recognition of Moroccan sovereignty over the Western Sahara.

Morocco said Sunday  that it had summoned  Spain’s ambassador to Rabat Ricardo Díez-Hochleitner Rodríguez to protest Spain’s  welcoming of Ghali.

The Moroccan foreign ministry said, in a statement, that it had asked the Spanish ambassador “to provide clarifications” about his country’s reception of the Polisario chief.

Moroccan and Spanish media reported Saturday evening that Rabat had summoned the Spanish ambassador after Madrid received Ibrahim Ghali for treatment over a coronavirus infection.

The ministry expressed its regret “for the position of Spain, which hosts on its soil the leader of the separatist (Polisario) militia, accused of committing serious war crimes and gross violations of human rights.”

The ministry expressed disappointment over the attitude of Spain in  “hosting a leader of a separatist militia (Polisario) who is accused of war crimes and gross violations to human rights,” describing  Madrid’s stance as “contrary to the spirit of partnership and good neighbourliness in regard to  a fundamental issue for the Moroccan people (the Saharan province).”

The statement also accused the  Spanish authorities of admitting Ghali with a false passport and identity and ignoring  several lawsuits against him before Spanish courts on accusations of “war crimes and human rights violations.”

It added, “Spain’s position is surprising and raises legitimate questions, including the admission of Ibrahim Ghali in Spain secretly and with a forged passport”.

It continued, “why did Spain choose not to inform Morocco of the matter? And why did it choose to admit him with a false identity? And why has the Spanish judiciary not yet responded to the numerous complaints lodged by the victims?”

The leader of the Polisario is wanted by Spanish courts for crimes of torture, rape, forced detention and kidnapping in Spain. He entered the country with a false identity in order to avoid having to face problems by the Spanish judicial system.

On Saturday, Moroccan media broadcast video recordings of three Sahrawis, two men and a woman, who used to live in the Tindouf refugee camps in Algeria.

In these recordings, the three individuals demanded that the Spanish authorities arrest Ghali and try him on charges of “human rights violations” and “torture”.

In the video recording, the Sahrawi woman said that, as a “victim of these crimes,” she had previously filed a lawsuit against Ghali in Spain.

Lawyer and Sahara issue expert Nawfal Bouamri, told The Arab Weekly, that the Spanish Public Prosecutor in Madrid had, nearly ten years ago, requested that Ghali be appear before the courts. Since then, the Polisario leader was unable to enter Spain until last Thursday. Bouamri added that the request for his arrest is hence legally founded.

A diplomatic source told The  Arab Weekly that Morocco expects from Spain a clear position on this issue that has triggered tensions between Rabat and Madrid. It also expects Spanish Foreign Minister Arancha Gonzalez Laya to translate her words into deeds having described Morocco as a “partner” and a “friend”, and work to create the proper atmosphere for the high Spanish Moroccan joint committee to meet soon.  The committee’s session has been postponed more than once at the request of Morocco. This sparked speculations about the existence of a silent crisis between the two countries over the Sahara issue.

On Thursday, Gonzalez admitted, after news reports were published about the matter, that Brahim Ghali was in Spain. But she denied that Ghali’s admission to a Spanish hospital could be reason for conflict with Morocco, which she said is a “friendly” country and a “special partner” of Spain.

Moroccan analysts see an irony in Spain’s backing of separatism in Morocco while fighting it at home, in places such as Catalonia or the Basque Country.

Political writer Mohamed Hamrouche wondered what would have been Madrid’s reaction if Rabat decided, to reciprocate by hosting, for instance, Catalan independence leader Carlos ​Bogdemont.

Political analyst Mohamed Lekerini believes that this incident will further strain the relations between the two countries, although Spain is trying to safeguard its relations and interests with both Morocco and Algeria, the main backer of the Polisario Front.

But analysts believe Madrid’s position is tenuous and it might be forced in the future to take sides with one of the two parties, especially since the problem has to do with a priority issue in Spain’s foreign policy.

Lekerini did not rule out seeing Morocco take “more drastic steps”, adding that “if Morocco’s territorial integrity is violated, this may push it to sever diplomatic relations between the two countries, as we have recently witnessed a major change at the level of decisions taken by Moroccan diplomacy, which is becoming more daring and more decisive when it comes to issues affecting the higher interests of Morocco.”

Spain is a major trading partner of Morocco and the two countries also collaborate on sensitive issues related to security, immigration and terrorism.

Even in times of tensions, Madrid seems keen to speak in a positive tone about bilateral relations, so as not to lend credence to speculations about a possible break in diplomatic relations between the two countries.