Morocco denies 'torturing' Sahrawi protesters

Morocco denied on Saturday accusations by Amnesty International that security forces tortured six men who were arrested after a demonstration calling for the independence of Western Sahara.

The Sahrawis were arrested on May 9 in connection with a protest that took place five days earlier in Laayoune, the main city in disputed Western Sahara, which turned violent.

Amnesty said the men, aged between 17 and 30, were charged with violence against public officials, obstructing traffic, taking part in an armed gathering and damaging public property.

All six "told the investigative judge that they had been tortured and otherwise ill-treated and that their 'confessions' were extracted under torture in police custody," the group said on Thursday.

The interior ministry, in a statement carried by the MAP news agency, denied the men were tortured.

"What was reported is nothing but pure lies," it said.

It also dismissed claims by Amnesty that the youngest detainee, 17-year-old El Hussein Bah, had been threatened with rape.

Bah "met the prosecutor general twice... and he did not witness any sign of torture or violence," the ministry said.

Amnesty said on Thursday that Bah "alleged that police officers pressed a urine-soaked sponge against his face and pulled his trousers off before threatening him with rape."

If convicted the men face up to 10 years in prison, Amnesty said.

The protests, in Laayoune, Smara and Boujdour on May 4 and 5 were some of the biggest the Western Sahara has witnessed in decades, with 2,000 activists marching in the main city alone, according to the official CNDH rights group.

The Western Sahara is a highly sensitive subject in Morocco, which annexed the former Spanish colony in 1975 in a move never recognised by the international community.

Tensions have been running high in the territory since the UN Security Council passed a resolution last month extending the mandate of the UN peacekeeping mission but omitting a US-backed plan to task it with human rights monitoring.

The proposal was dropped after furious lobbying by Morocco, which has been proposing broad autonomy under its sovereignty for the phosphate-rich territory.

The pro-independence Polisario Front insists on the Sahrawis' right to a referendum on self-determination.