RABAT, Morocco – A Moroccan military court convicted 24 Western Saharan activists on Sunday for their roles in the killing of 11 soldiers at a protest camp in 2010, and gave nine of the defendants life sentences.
The long delayed trial revolves around the sensitive issue of Morocco's annexation of the mineral rich Western Sahara region in 1975.
In October 2010, thousands of Western Saharans set up a protest camp in Gdim Izik just outside the main city of Laayoune to demonstrate against their marginalization in favor of Moroccans from the north and to demand jobs and housing.
The Polisario, an Algeria-based group fighting for the independence of the Western Sahara, maintains the camp also had political demands and was part of a popular revolt for independence.
After negotiations with the protesters broke down, security forces went to clear the camp on Nov. 8 and were met by armed resistance. Eleven soldiers and two Saharans died in the fighting in some of the most serious violence in the region since it was annexed by Morocco in 1975.
Hundreds of people were arrested, but only 24 were finally tried as well as one more in absentia. Nine life sentences were handed down Sunday, as well as four for 30 years, eight for 25 years, 2 for 20 years, and two others released for time served.
Mohammed Messoudi, a defense lawyer, described the verdict as "shocking" and added that "the accused did not have all their rights because in a military trial we can't appeal the verdicts." Still, the lawyer said he will ask the supreme court to review the verdict.
He added that many of the accused claimed they had been tortured while in custody, and the court did not authorize medical examinations. He also dismissed the evidence, largely police reports, as sufficient for a guilty verdict.
The trial, which began Feb. 1, was often the scene of rival demonstrations between families of the defendants and those of the victims, who had long denounced the delays in the trial.
"We had confidence in Moroccan justice and it has not disappointed us," said Miloud Belhouari, who represents the families of the victims. "These people (the defendants) can see their families again after 30 or 25 years of prison, but we will never see our sons again who were slaughtered in cold blood."
Local and international rights groups have condemned the use of a military court to try the Saharans, many of whom were community representatives.
"The trial of civilians before a military court does not meet internationally recognized standards for a fair trial," Philip Luther, Amnesty International's Mideast director, said in a statement before the verdict. "Allegations of the torture of detainees must be investigated and any evidence obtained under torture must be dismissed by the court."
The military court did carry out its option of sentencing some defendants to execution.