Moroccan military court adjourns trial of 24 Sahrawis

The military trial of 24 Sahrawis accused of killing members of the Moroccan security forces in the Western Sahara opened on Friday and was adjourned until February 8.

The politically charged trial, which took place at a military tribunal in Rabat after repeated delays, was attended by around 50 independent foreign observers, as well as relatives of the victims and Moroccan rights activists.

The defendants, two of whom were absent from Friday's hearing, are accused of violence against the security forces leading to death and the mutilation of the victims' corpses. Rights groups say they risk the death penalty if convicted.

They have been held in custody since their arrest during the violence that erupted in November 2010 when security forces moved to dismantle the Gdim Izik camp where thousands of local Sahrawis were living.

The authorities say 11 people died in the unrest, among them members of the security forces, and 70 people were wounded.

Some 100 people demonstrated outside the court in Rabat, among them families of the victims, relatives of the accused and pro-Sahrawi activists, an AFP journalist said.

Some relatives of the victims waved banners that read: "We know who the killers are, so where is justice?"

Ahead of the trial, observers and rights groups had expressed concern over allegations the defendants were tortured in custody, about the case being tried by a military court, and the possible death penalty facing the accused.

"Allowing a military court to try civilians raises doubts about the fair, independent and impartial administration of justice," said the Naples-based International Observatory for Human Rights.

A judicial source, quoted by official media, said the accused were being tried in a military court because they had committed "criminal acts against the military and security forces."

Michael Ellman, a British human rights lawyer familiar with the case who attended the trial as an independent observer, said he had seen "many statements" provided by relatives detailing marks of torture on the defendants.

"I have no reason to doubt them," he told AFP. "Most of the suspects haven't been able to see a doctor."

At dawn on November 8, 2010, Moroccan security forces moved to dismantle the Western Sahara camp, near the disputed territory's main city of Laayoune, which thousands of Sahrawis had set up in protest over their living conditions.

The intervention sparked clashes that spread to Laayoune, where businesses and public buildings were looted and torched.

The authorities said 11 people were killed in the unrest, while the Algeria-based Polisario Front separatists said dozens of people lost their lives.

Morocco, whose annexation of the former Spanish colony in 1975 is not recognised by the international community, has proposed broad autonomy for the territory under its sovereignty.

This is rejected by the Polisario Front, which insists on the right of the Sahrawi people to a referendum on self-determination and launched its struggle for independence even before the annexation.