Saharawi activist Mahfouda Bamba Lefkir, “I left the small prison just to enter the big one”

After six months in jail on a politically-motivated charge, Saharawi Human rights activist Mahfouda Bamba Lefkir has been released but enjoys only partial freedom

July 02, 2020 by Equipe Media
Sahrawi activists Lefkir illegal confinement
Mahfouda Bamba Lefkir has a long history of fighting the Moroccan state’s occupation of Sahrawi land.

Mahfouda Bamba Lefkir was born 36 years ago in El Aaiun, in the Moroccan-occupied part of Western Sahara, after Spain had given up the former colony. The mother of two children is also a Saharawi human rights activist, apart from belonging to the Akdim Izik Collective and the Moroccan Association for Human Rights (AMDH).

On November 16, 2019, a Moroccan judge ordered her arrest, while she was attending the trial of other activists, when she protested against their sentence for considering it unfair. Then she had to serve a six-months prison term and was held under deplorable conditions in the Moroccan-administered infamous Black Prison in the territory’s capital.

The occupying authorities did not pay attention to appeals launched throughout her detention by international organizations that demand Mahfouda be released. NGOs such as Front Line Defenders, the Worldwide Organization against Torture and the International Human Rights Federation had denounced the arbitrary detention of Mahfouda Bamba Lefkir and called for her liberation.

Following her release in May (only after serving the totality of her sentence), Equipe Media spoke to Mahfouda Bamba Lefkir about her detention and the political persecution she suffers from.

Equipe Media: On November 15th, 2019 you were detained during a trial of activists. Could you explain to us why that detention occurred and what you experienced in police custody?

Mahfouda Bamba Lefkir: I was present at the trial of the Saharawi activists Mansour Otman El Moussaoui and Mohammed Habadi Gargar, who had been detained for having taken part in the public celebration held in occupied El Aaiun, when the Algerian national team won the African Cup. I was arrested and imprisoned for protesting in the hearing of the tribunal, against the ill-treatment and the show trial the detained had to suffer.

It was not the first time I was present at politically motivated proceedings. Earlier, I went to observe the trials of the Gdaym Izik group and of Saharawi students. They detained me because of my political position in favor of Western Sahara’s independence.

Initially I was taken hostage in the Royal Prosecutor’s office in the Court of First Instance. But the very day they then transferred me to the Police premises.

I was thrown into a very small and foul-smelling cell with humidity, darkness and cold, without any blankets and with insects. I am asthmatic and underwent anxiety crises and asthma attacks, spending a horrific night there. In addition to that, I had to deal with provocations and threats originating from criminals detained in a neighboring cell. Then I was taken to an interrogation room where they undressed me completely and left me naked twice, while being questioned. They checked by cellphone and copied all its contents, i.e. photos, videos, contacts and conversations.

They interrogated me about my relationship with the Polisario Front, my political activities, my involvement in protest gatherings, demands appearing as graffiti paroles on walls in occupied El Aaiun.

Spending a whole day neither eating any food nor drinking any water, made me experience considerable psychological pressure as well.

Equipe Media: When you had to appear in court, what were you accused of? And what was your relationship with other prisoners and prison conditions like, after that?

Mahfouda Bamba Lefkir: The 16th of that month was taken to the First Instance Tribunal. There, I was under lock-down for 8 hours, without eating or drinking anything and underwent both physical and psychological aggression.

In a trial without anybody to defend me and my family not present either, the very same Royal Prosecutor who had held me there, the evening before, sent me to prison for “hindering and humiliating justice”.

The very same torturers who used to mistreat me and other women in our protests, took photos and provoked me within the very same court-room.

At 9 pm, two policemen told me they would take me to the police station to continue the interrogation. On the way, I was caught by surprise, when the police stopped their vehicle right at the Black Prison. I fell at the door and was injured.

Then followed the reception with body searches and the questioning. They threw me into a 15 square-meter cell with seven common criminals. It was a pestilential stinking cell, due to a toilet inside, without any ventilation and no natural light.

Affected by an acute pain in my head now, I also have hemorrhoids and asthma and a nose cyst which is complicated by breathing. Despite feeling far from well, I was forbidden to take or receive my medicine.

Feeling suffocated, on the first day in that cell, I obtained a ball-pen and paper. But I was accused of inciting activism and attempting to teach prisoners the Saharawi anthem. Doing physical training made them accuse me of teaching other prisoners military exercises.

The prison administration ordered other prisoners to provoke and put pressure on me within the cell, during the six months I spent there. They introduced rubbish and fingernails into my food.

These very same cellmates forced me to put on a melhfa (the traditional dress of Saharawi women), but with the colors of the Moroccan flag, so that a delegation of Moroccan officials would see me like that, on a prison visit of theirs.

They proposed I should appeal for a pardon and I refused because I am not a criminal and have not committed anything punishable.

My family was what worried me most, especially my kids. My husband told me in a phone conversation that my 11-year-old son wanted to take to the streets and when facing police shout “Long live a Free Sahara” in order to be detained and thus see me. He could not stand my absence.

Equipe Media: Coronavirus has reached Moroccan prisons. How did you experience the pandemic during the time you were in prison?

Mahfouda Bamba Lefkir: They impeded me from controlling my personal things, especially those concerning hygiene, medicine and food. And I needed food, as the meals served by the prison were junk food and my body rejected it. I am a vulnerable personal with illnesses such as asthma and allergies. It was a disgraceful situation.

Equipe Media: What about being released into freedom?

Mahfouda Bamba Lefkir: I left the small prison just to enter the big one.

Many policemen surrounded the prison. Their cameras filmed me embracing my children and other family members. They followed suit all the way to our family home in El Wefaq, the borough of ours, where they had prepared a respectable siege situation, in order to impede the organization of my reception. Those measures impeded those Saharawis who had turned up to welcome my freedom. It was an incomplete liberation. I am now confined to my parents’ place and cannot go to my own home and visitors cannot come to see me either. I cannot leave and nobody can enter. A lot of people have been assaulted by police thugs just for trying to see me.

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