The leader of the Western Sahara independence movement, Brahim Ghali, will appear before a Spanish court to respond to allegations of torture and genocide made against him.
The head of the Polisario Front is currently being treated for COVID-19 in Logrono, in northern Spain. He testifies via video link with the court in the capital, Madrid.
Ghali’s presence in Spain angered Morocco, which claims rights to the former Spanish colony.
More than 8,000 Moroccans last month crossed the border into the North African enclave of Ceuta, in a move Spanish politicians say has the support of Moroccan authorities.
Ghali, who is also president of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic, a self-proclaimed country since 1976, is the subject of two investigations in Spain.
After completing his investigation, the presiding judge will decide whether to indict the Polisario leader, or to reject the cases brought against him.
The session comes amid rising tension between Rabat and Madrid over Ghali’s presence in Spain.
The Polisario Front has long fought for the independence of Western Sahara, a desert region that was a Spanish colony until 1975.
Morocco controls 80 percent of the territory, while the remaining area is administered by the Polisario Front – an area bordering Mauritania that is almost completely closed.
What is Ghali accused of?
One investigation relates to allegations of torture in the Sahrawi refugee camps in Tindouf, in western Algeria.
These accusations were made by the Sahrawi dissident Fadel Barika, who holds Spanish citizenship, in 2020.
A Spanish court had initially dismissed the complaint, but earlier this year agreed to reopen the case.
The second investigation concerns allegations of genocide, murder, terrorism, torture and disappearance that the Sahrawi Association for the Defense of Human Rights, based in Spain, submitted in 2007.
The Spanish judge handling this case refused to impose any precautionary measures – such as confiscating the passport of the Polisario leader, according to the complainants’ request – on the grounds that there were no “clear indications of his involvement” in the crimes he was accused of committing.
Rabat has already warned the Spanish government that allowing Ghali to “go home and bypass Spanish justice and ignore the victims” would worsen relations.
In 2016, Ghali was summoned for questioning about the second complaint when he was due to attend a conference in Spain in support of the Sahrawi people, but eventually canceled his trip.
Rabat is considered a “war criminal”, and the Moroccan Foreign Ministry warned Monday that the crisis of his presence in Spain “will not be resolved in one hearing.”
And it called again for a “transparent investigation” about the arrival of Gali to Spain, and said that he traveled with a false passport. She said the crisis was a “credibility test” for Moroccan-Spanish relations.
What do you say Spain?
Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez said it was “unacceptable” that Morocco “attacks Spain’s borders” by allowing migrants to enter Ceuta due to “differences in foreign policy”.
The Spanish newspaper, El Pais, quoted diplomatic sources as saying that Ghali was in a “critical condition” when he arrived on an Algerian government medical plane on April 18 carrying a diplomatic passport.
She added that he was taken to the hospital under an assumed name for “security reasons”.
The United Nations refers to Western Sahara as a “Non-Self-Governing Territory”. Morocco had shown a willingness to grant him autonomy within Morocco, not independence.
After 16 years of war, Rabat and the Polisario Front signed a ceasefire agreement in 1991, but the UN-backed referendum on self-determination was postponed more than once.
Clashes resumed last November when the Polisario declared an end to the ceasefire after Morocco sent its forces into a buffer zone, subject to United Nations patrols, to reopen a major road.