Saturday June 23, 2007 7:01 PM
By JOHN THORNE
Associated Press Writer
LAAYOUNE, Western Sahara (AP) - With each question she refused to answer, Zahra Bassiri said, Moroccan police grabbed her hair, yanked her head back and slammed her face against the wall.
Activists say pro-independence demonstrators have suffered from escalating police brutality recently ahead of talks this week on the status of Western Sahara, a disputed, Texas-sized swath of North African desert that has been a major source of tension between the region's powers since Morocco occupied it three decades ago.
The United States wants neighbors Morocco and Algeria and Western Sahara's main independence movement, the Algerian-backed Polisario Front, to agree on a peace plan so that the region can focus on another pressing North African problem: al-Qaida-inspired Islamic terrorism.
But one reason why expectations are so low at the United Nations-sponsored talks between Morocco and Polisario are persistent accusations from Saharawis, Western Sahara's once nomadic people, that Morocco rules the region brutally.
``We cannot negotiate while we're being oppressed,'' Polisario's coordinator with the U.N., Mohamed Khadad, said in a telephone interview.
Western Sahara activists say Moroccan police are cracking down on pro-independence Saharawis, including the arrest and torture of dozens of children and teenagers like Bassiri.
For the 14-year-old girl, a normal February school day became a nightmare when she joined around 50 other Saharawis after class to demand independence.
Demonstrators chanted slogans and unfurled Polisario banners. Suddenly Moroccan police swarmed onto the scene. Zahra was caught and bundled into a police van.
``The beating started at once,'' she recounted in an interview arranged by Saharawi rights activists in Laayoune, Western Sahara's main city. ``Four policemen threw me on the floor of the van to get a better swing with their truncheons.''
After five hours of continued beating at a police station, Zahra says she was locked in a small urine-damp cell with 17 other young Saharawis. In the morning, police forced her and another girl to clean the station and pressed her to name other activists. They released her that evening.
Morocco invaded Western Sahara in 1975 in a hand-off from the territory's former colonizer, Spain. Polisario resisted in a guerrilla war that ended in 1991 with a U.N.-brokered cease-fire, leaving several thousands dead on both sides.
A U.N.-mandated vote on independence foundered over disagreements about who should vote.
Polisario still wants a referendum on Western Sahara's future. Morocco rules that out and proposes limited autonomy.
Morocco fears losing Western Sahara would undermine the authority of King Mohamed VI. Rich fishing banks and possible offshore oil are added incentives to keeping the territory.
The invasion date, Nov. 6, is a national holiday and commemorated on Moroccan bank notes. Criticism of Morocco's rule in Western Sahara, which it calls its ``Southern Provinces,'' is illegal.
Nonetheless, Saharawis have recently accelerated a campaign of pro-independence demonstrations, with young people at the forefront. The campaign, and the escalating police brutality, come amid increased activity around Western Sahara in recent months, with Morocco presenting a new autonomy plan, the Polisario offering to share the region's resources with Morocco and the U.N. talks Monday and Tuesday.
Laayoune's governor Mohamed Dryef accused older Saharawis of encouraging the young people.
``These demonstrations are against the law, and are suppressed in accordance with the law,'' Dryef, appointed governor by King Mohamed, said in an interview.
Dryef denied that police in Laayoune used excessive force or arrested minors.
Demonstrators tell a different story.
Abdelnaceur Lemaissi, 14, said police arrested him and his mother after breaking up a demonstration they were in last month. They were taken to a police station and forced to watch each other being savagely pummeled with batons.
``They aimed for my ears and the back of my head,'' said Abdelnaceur, whose left eardrum burst. A doctor's report shown to The Associated Press confirmed Abdelnaceur's injuries. A psychiatrist's report diagnosed him with post-traumatic stress disorder, paranoia and nightmares.
Most Saharawis are scooped up from demonstrations, but arrest can come any time.
``I just went out one evening last month to buy groceries when two plainclothes cops grabbed me,'' said Omar, 17, who did not want his last name printed because he feared police reprisals.
Omar said police handcuffed and blindfolded him, and drove him to the desert. There, they stripped, drenched and beat him before burying him up to his neck in a ditch with rocks and sitting on him. Finally they deposited him back in Laayoune, miles from his house.
Omar said he doesn't know why he was targeted.
Random arrests help create ``an ambiance of terror,'' said Brahim Elansari, vice-president of the Saharawi Association for Human Rights Victims.
Saharawi neighborhoods in Laayoune are eerily silent in an otherwise bustling city. Residents scurry indoors as Moroccan riot police tramp down the sunwashed streets, idly swinging truncheons. But ubiquitous pro-Polisario graffiti gives mute testimony of local public opinion.
Morocco has poured settlers and money into Western Sahara, where some 200,000 Moroccans now outnumber Saharawis two to one.
Moroccans come for lower taxes, subsidized goods and jobs. Saharawis say Moroccan employers won't hire them.
``The problem is social - most of these young (Saharawis) don't have work,'' said El Houcine Baida, a Saharawi and member of the Moroccan king's advisory committee on Western Sahara.
Analysts warn against imposing a political solution Saharawis don't accept, lest their largely peaceful activism warp into a full-fledged uprising.
``All of the conditions are there for violence,'' said Jacob Mundy, a Western Sahara expert with the Washington, D.C.-based Middle East Research and Information Project. ``Everyone's holding onto a small shred of hope that the U.N. will intervene to prevent this from blowing up.''
Associated Press writer Aidan Lewis in Algiers contributed to this report.