has been battling full legal international recognition of its southern
territories known as Western Sahara for almost three decades. On 9 October 2010, separatists elements
erected Gdeim Izik camp, few miles outside the main city Laayoun, as a form of protest against the Moroccan
government. On November 8th of the same
year, Moroccan security forces interviened to dismantle the camp. By the time it was all over, 11 members of
the security forces were killed, and
about 70 people were injured according to Moroccan authorities. Arrests were made.
defendants faced trial and sentences were handed down on Sunday February
17th. Due to the sensitivity of the
trial, about 60 international observers were permitted to follow the
proceedings. A former Washington Post staff writer, Alison Lake, was among the
Lake is a freelance writer and editor, and a former staff writer at The Washington Post
whose work has appeared in numerous magazines and newspapers. She has written
recently on Western Sahara and terrorism in North Africa for the Post and
Foreign Policy magazine. She previously worked as a writer and editor for a
Washington-area Islamic think tank, and consulted for several public policy
organizations. Alison has written two books; Colonial Rosary is carried by over
two-hundred university libraries.
In what capacity did you attend the
Gdem Izik trial?
I attended the trial as a media
observer, and spent 3 days in the military tribunal courtroom, including the
last day the judge delivered his verdicts at 1 am Sunday February 17.
How many defendants were there total
and what was the range of charges?
There was a total of 24 defendants,
including, I believe, one who was tried in absentia and who is still on the
run. Most of the accused received 20-30 year sentences, in addition to some
life sentences and 2-year sentences of time already served. Charges included assaults on military
personnel with intent to kill, murder, and desecration of corpses and causing
The Moroccan government had promised
full transparency during the entire trial. To what degree do you think that
promise was fulfilled?
I am still investigating this piece
of the puzzle for an article that will publish next week, but I do think
Morocco has made every effort to document the process and be as open as
possible. Numerous family visits were recorded, as well as documentation of
many medical examinations to address the accused's claims of torture while
Some argue that the trial and the
sentencing concluded way too fast and given that it was conducted by a military
court, justice and fairness are a near-impossibility. Your comments.
The Moroccan side states that since
more than two years were taken to build the case and approach it in a fair and
clear manner, the trial was not too fast. From my perspective I was astonished
that a case of this complexity could be resolved so quickly. Many observers
stated that the trial should have been held in a civil court to give a fair
trial to the defendants, who are civilians, but the crimes were mostly
committed against military personnel. I am told by Moroccan attorneys that Moroccan law
requires, in cases where victims or the accused are military, that they be
tried by a military tribunal. Certainly from a visual standpoint, the court was
heavy on the military side. We were surrounded on all sides by gendarmes and
special forces guarding the courtroom. On the other hand, the defendants were
not handcuffed and were allowed to wear their traditional Sahraoui
How was the court's treatment of the
defendants during the trial and the sentencing?
The latitude allowed the defendants
during the trial was one of the most striking aspects of the process, for me. I
cannot imagine being in a criminal court in the United States or Morocco and
witnessing defendants on trial for murder who are allowed to behave as they
were allowed last week: the men entered the courtroom without handcuffs; got up
and approached the bench sometimes without formal request and were allowed to
talk; joked with each other and frequently turned around to smile at family and
sneer at the audience, and most of all, constantly chant slogans and shout in
the courtroom upon entry and exit. They also had long lunch breaks and could
get up out of their seats any time to get water or restroom breaks. What seems
unprecedented in Morocco perhaps is the length of time the judge allowed them
to talk and present their cases. The defendants were given their time to speak,
not only through their lawyers, and from what I saw, the judge treated them
with extreme respect and open ears. While this was happening, protests happened
day and night outside the courtroom, with supporters of the victims' families
on the one side and pro-Saharan independence demonstrators on the other.
What kind of legal representation
did the defendants have?
11 lawyers represented 24
defendants. Two lawyers came from Moroccan human rights organizations and the
rest were funded by the accused's families or international organizations, or
served as volunteers. Some of the lawyers were evidently sympathetic to the
pro-Sahraoui independence ideology of the accused and even originated from the same
region in the South, as evidenced by their accents.
Do you think that the defendants received a fair trial, and that the
punishment fit the crime?
The punishments, in my opinion,
appear to fit the crimes. From what I hear, many Moroccans are pleased that
their government has demonstrated it will not tolerate such violence in the
kingdom and its (de facto-ruled) region of Western Sahara. From a security
standpoint, the verdicts are reassuring to the Moroccan people. On the other
hand, I talked to observers and lawyers who also believe the convicts are
likely to be pardoned after a period of time and receive shortened sentences.
From the perspective of the victims' families, many present at the trial were
happy the defendants received the sentences they did, but families are likely
to pursue their cases in civil court as well for damages.
Was there any talk of appeal?
As each convict made his way out of
the court, the prosecutor told him he would have one week to make an appeal.
The defense lawyers made clear in their arguments that they believed the trial
was unfair and that appeals would be pursued.
What reactions and impressions did
you see from international observers and monitors throughout the trial?
Most observers I spoke with were
happy with the tone and approach of the trial and believed that Morocco
followed its obligations as signatory to many human rights treaties.
Interestingly, media representation was overwhelmingly and disproportionately
Spanish. Spain evidently had great interest in the outcome of this trial. It
would have been nice to see more Arab and Western media in the courtroom as
If similar events were to have taken
place in the United States, what would think would have been different?
I cannot imagine a trial of this
complexity being resolved so quickly in a courtroom in any country. However,
from an American perspective, we see how our Guantanamo detainees have sat in
prison for years on end and many without prompt due process. In this case there
was plenty of evidence to implicate the defendants, so that moved the process
along. We saw an ample number of photos
and other evidence such as cell phones and walkie-talkies, as well as
statements made by the detainees, that made the case was fairly solid. For
Morocco, this trial is a momentous event. The country aimed to show the
international community it could conduct a fair and transparent trial, as well
as demonstrate respect for free speech in allowing constant demonstrations and
protests to take place outside of the courtroom. The November 2010 riots and
murder in Laayoune that prompted this trial demonstrate to many people that the
political status quo of Western Sahara is untenable. Continued stalemate over
the territory's status is harmful to Moroccan security and unstable for the
people living there.
Video from the Gdim Izik
incident. Contains graphic Images