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Update 00/01 on ICRC activities for prisoners in Morocco/Western Sahara

25-05-2000 Operational Update

Almost ten years after the Western Sahara conflict ceasefire, 1,685 Moroccan prisoners are still in captivity. While there have been constant delays in the implementation of the UN settlement plan, the ICRC spares no effort to secure their release and repatriation. In the meantime, it works to alleviate the prisoners'plight by carrying out regular visits to the camps, the latest of which revealed the men to be psychologically distressed and physically worn out. 

So far in 2000, the ICRC has repatriated 186 prisoners who were in need of urgent medical treatment, in February, and has carried out the first of its twice-yearly visits to the prisoners, in April, when a medical team examined 600 prisoners and provided medical supplies.

The ICRC has also stepped up its efforts on behalf of persons unaccounted for.

 I. ICRC medical team visits Moroccan prisoners held by Polisario Front  

As delays regarding the UN settlement plan and uncertainty surrounding its implementation have held up the prisoners'repatriation, the ICRC tries to find ways of providing these men, most of whom have been in captivity for nearly 20 years, with more specialized care on the spot.

Between 19 and 30 April, an ICRC team of four visited 600 Moroccan prisoners detained by the Polisario Front in the Tindouf region (south-western Algeria). T he team was composed of a medical doctor, also a specialist in neurology, an eye surgeon, a dental technician and an ICRC delegate. All 600 prisoners were seen personally by the neurologist and the delegate.

The eye surgeon operated on 25 prisoners and one Sahrawi refugee who had been in immediate danger of losing their sight. In addition, he examined 171 eye patients and wrote out prescriptions for 80 pairs of spectacles. The dental technician equipped 13 prisoners with dental prostheses - produced on the spot thanks to a mini-laboratory provided by the ICRC- and taught two prisoners (a nurse and a dentist) how to make dental prostheses.

The ICRC is extremely concerned about the situation of these men, most of whom were captured between 1978 and 1982. The average period of detention to date is 18 years. 744 of the prisoners have been in captivity for 20 years or longer.

According to the ICRC doctor, " I could not even select which prisoners I wanted to examine, they were all so insistent and anxious to be seen. All of them are ill - either physically or psychologically. Premature ageing and depression, even psychosis, are widespread. There has been a marked deterioration in their state of health over the past two years. Despite the assistance provided, the possibilities for medical treatment in the camps can only remain limited, and living conditions i n the desert are very harsh, especially in the summer months. But worst of all are the continual delays in the referendum, on which the prisoners had been pinning all their hopes for repatriation to Morocco. This leads to tensions within the camp, linked to a tragic loss of hope and a growing feeling of helplessness. "

 Medical supplies during the visits  

During the visits to the camps, in addition to examining the prisoners, the ICRC regularly provides equipment for eye surgery and dental care, as well as supplies of insulin and basic medicines for the Moroccan prisoners.

Pending their repatriation, the ICRC will continue to visit the prisoners and to provide them with regular medical assistance. The ICRC will closely follow the cases of prisoners in very poor health who need to be transferred to a specialized medical facility, and, in a pragmatic approach, will pursue its efforts so as to obtain that the most vulnerable persons are swiftly repatriated.

 Red Cross messages and other family contacts  

The ICRC also maintains contact between Moroccan prisoners and their families by forwarding Red Cross messages, and sends family parcels to Moroccan prisoners via the Algerian Red Crescent. It also monitors the conditions of detention and treatment of the prisoners.

In 1999, the ICRC forwarded 33,679 Red Cross messages and sent 507 family parcels to Moroccan prisoners via the Algerian Red Crescent.

 II. Repatriation of Moroccan prisoners  

On 26 February 2000, the ICRC repatriated 186 prisoners released by the Polisario Front on humanitarian grounds. Escorted by an ICRC team, the men left Tindouf, Algeria, aboard an aircraft chartered by the organization and were handed over to the Moroccan authorities on arrival at Inezgane military base near Agadir. The ICRC, which had offered its services as a neutral intermediary, acted with the agree ment of all the parties concerned.

Before the operation, ICRC delegates had interviewed the prisoners individually to check that they were being repatriated of their own free will. They were all allowed to take their personal effects with them.

Prior to this, three groups of Moroccan prisoners were repatriated under the auspices of the ICRC: 10 prisoners in 1984, 185 in 1995, and 5 in November 1999.

The organization has been stepping up representations to the parties involved to bring about an expedient humanitarian solution and remains available to supervise the repatriation of all Moroccan prisoners still held in connection with the Western Sahara conflict.

 III. Persons unaccounted for  

Over the years, the parties have passed on to the ICRC various lists of names of persons unaccounted for in connection with the conflict (900 from Morocco and 230 from the Polisario Front). In some cases, the ICRC was able to provide information to the parties seeking information.

The ICRC will pursue its representations to the parties with a view to elucidating these distressing cas es and will continue its tracing efforts related thereto.

 IV. Historical background on the issue of the prisoners  

In April 1991, the United Nations Security Council, in its resolution 690, adopted the settlement plan drawn up by the United Nations Secretary-General. Among other things, it was stressed that the plan " also provides for the exchange of prisoners of war. This will t ake place under the auspices of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) " .

The settlement plan also stipulates that the repatriation of prisoners will be carried out once the process of identification of voters for the referendum has been completed. This condition prompted the ICRC President to write to His Majesty the King of Morocco, to the Secretary-General of the Polisario Front and to the United Nations Secretary-General in 1992. In his letter, he called on the parties concerned to show greater understanding and urged them not to link the political aspects of a settlement to the conflict with the humanitarian issue of the prisoners, who had to be released immediately after the cessation of hostilities, in accordance with the Geneva Conventions.

Following the ICRC President's representations to the parties, the ICRC stepped up its cooperation with them and eventually gained regular access to the prisoners. This enabled it to afford the prisoners more effective protection and to play its traditional role in their gradual repatriation. The latest repatriation operation of Moroccan prisoners took place on 26 February 2000.

In October 1996, Morocco released 66 Sahrawi prisoners linked to the conflict who were flown to the Tindouf area (Algeria), under the auspices of the International Committee of the Red Cross.

The referendum has been postponed on numerous occasions. No clear date is now set for it to be held. There are strong indications from the UN Secretary-General that it will not be before 2002 or even beyond.