Moroccan agents assault former Sahrawi political prisoner Mahfouda Lefkir, besiege her house in occupied territory

A trade unionist and prominent human rights defender, Mahfouda has been unrelentingly participating in the struggle for Western Sahara’s liberation from Moroccan occupation despite torture, imprisonment, and threats of rape   

June 13, 2023 by Pavan Kulkarni
Sahrawi activists Lefkir illegal confinement
Mahfouda Bamba Lefkir has a long history of fighting the Moroccan state’s occupation of Sahrawi land.

The Moroccan authorities illegally occupying Western Sahara have besieged the home of 39-year-old Mahfouda Lefkir, a former political prisoner and prominent human rights defender, for over a month. Mahfouda has been tortured several times in the past and threatened with rape. 

Mahfouda is the head of the Sahrawi Committee for the Defense of Workers Arbitrarily Expelled by the Moroccan State and a trade unionist. She has been on the frontlines of several struggles in the occupied territory, “organizing protests for Western Sahara’s independence and workshops with human rights organizations,” said Babouzeid Lebbihi, President of Collective of Sahrawi Human Rights Defenders (CODESA).

Moroccan security agents stationed outside her house in the occupied territory’s capital El Aaiun since May 4 have physically assaulted Mahfouda, her husband, and her two brothers, who have been stopped from visiting her.

Her 14-year-old son and 20-year-old daughter are also in her besieged home and are allegedly being harassed. Her third child had to be aborted in early 2017 after the occupation police, who had detained her from a protest in El Aaiun, tortured her when she was pregnant.  

Her sister-in-law and neighbor Salha Boutangiza, a correspondent at the Sahrawi National TV who had moved into Mahfouda’s home to document the attacks on her, is also held under the siege. 

‘Anyone trying to enter her house is being attacked’

“Anyone trying to enter her house to meet them is being attacked,” Babouzeid told Peoples Dispatch. Coordinating with Mahfouda, a delegation of five people, including three CODESA members and two former political prisoners, Khyarhoum Alia and Kaouria Saadi, managed to sneak into her house on June 5, taking advantage of a momentary drop of guard by the security agents. 

While leaving, members of this delegation were harassed and threatened with consequences by the security agents who had returned outside her house by then, added Babouzeid. 

Mahfouda’s movement has also been restricted. On May 10, while on a visit to her husband’s family, the security agents “demanded that I leave the house immediately, threatening to break in. I left because I wanted to prevent them from entering and harming the elderly,” Mahfouda told El Independiente.

This was an apparent attempt by the Moroccan occupation to preempt the family celebration of the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Polisario Front (PF) on May 10, 1973. PF is recognized by the UN as the international representative of the people of Western Sahara. The UN also recognizes Western Sahara as one of the last few countries yet to be decolonized.  

To mark the anniversary of the armed struggle launched by the PF for the liberation of this territory from its former colonizer Spain, Mahfouda along with other women activists held a demonstration in El Aaiun on May 20.  

Waving the Sahrawi tricolor, they called for Western Sahara’s liberation from Morocco which sent troops in with the Spanish retreat in 1975 and has since occupied 80% of its territory. The women also flung fliers over the streets, demanding the release of all political prisoners.

Moroccan security agents and police sprung into action, with some assaulting the women, pulling their scarves off their heads and dragging them on the streets, while others chased the fliers in the wind to confiscate them all.

Days later, after arresting her brother Omar Lefkir in the neighborhood on May 29, the Moroccan agents proceeded at 1 am on May 30 to remove one of the CCTV cameras Mahfouda had mounted on the wall of her house. On May 31, they also removed the other camera, before allegedly assaulting Mahfouda and her husband Lahbib Boutangiza in front of their home. 

When her other brother, Sheikh Lefkir, tried to enter the house later after midnight, the security agents allegedly dragged him away, beat him up, and detained him in police custody where he was tortured for several hours before being released. Omar Lefkir was also released on June 1, but neither of them have been able to meet their besieged sister yet.

This is not the first time such a siege has been imposed on Mahfouda. She was put under a similar undeclared house arrest at her parents’ home when she had visited them before heading to her house after her release from prison in May 2020. 

She had been imprisoned on charges of “obstructing justice” and “humiliation of a public official” after she was arrested on November 15, 2019 for protesting in the courtroom during the trial of her cousin Mansour Moussaoui and Mohammed Gargar. 

The duo had been arrested for participating in a public celebration of the Algerian football team’s victory in the Africa Cup that year. Since Algeria is a key supporter of the cause of Western Sahara’s liberation, cheering its football team is perceived by the Moroccan occupation as an act of protest that is worthy of a trial.  

Enduring over a decade of political persecution

Detained for protesting this trial, “I was thrown into a very small and foul-smelling cell with humidity, darkness and cold, without any blankets and with insects,” Mahfouda recalled in an interview with Equipe Media.

“Then I was taken to an interrogation room where they undressed me completely and left me naked twice [during questioning]… They interrogated me about my relationship with the Polisario Front, my political activities, my involvement in protest gatherings, demands appearing as graffiti.. on walls in occupied El Aaiun.”

The following day, on November 16, 2019, she was handed a six-month sentence. “They threw me into a 15 square-meter cell with seven criminals. It was a pestilential stinking cell due to a toilet inside, without any ventilation and no natural light,” she added. During her sentence, she was allegedly denied access to medicines for the hemorrhoids and asthma she was suffering from. 

Allegedly, on the instruction of the prison authorities, the criminals she was held with continuously harassed her, including by contaminating her food with fingernails and rubbish even as her health condition was seriously deteriorating. Undeterred by her prison experience, she returned to political activities right after her release. 

Her perseverance for over a decade, despite the violent crackdown by Moroccan authorities, has made her “a feminist struggle icon” rooted in the grassroots movements and looked up to by the young people under occupation as “a role model,” Babouzeid remarked.   

“She was also a member of the Gdeim Izik,” he said, referring to the massive protest camp that was erected in October 2010 barely 12 kilometers from El Aaiun. 

About 15,000 to 20,000 people had held out in over 6,500 tents pitched in the desert for a month, protesting peacefully against the economic woes and political disenfranchisement imposed on Western Sahara’s people by the Moroccan occupation. 

A month later, in November, the protest site was violently attacked and uprooted by the Moroccan police who were reportedly supported by civilian Moroccan settlers brandishing machetes. According to the PF, over 700 Sahrawis were injured, 36 killed and 163 detained, most of whom were tortured in custody.

Gdeim Izik has been described as the “Third Sahrawi Intifada”  and “the greatest unrest in the Occupied Territories since the 1991 ceasefire” between Morocco and the PF after the establishment of the UN Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO). Noam Chomsky has argued that the “Arab Spring” had in fact started with this protest.

19 members of the Gdeim Izik group, including Mahfouda’s cousin Mohamed Lefkir, remain in prison. When their trial began in 2013, two years after their arrests, it was before a military court. UN Special Rapporteur Juan Mendez reported at the time that he had “received credible testimonies relating to torture and ill-treatment in the Prison of Laâyoune [El Aauin], including rape, severe beating and isolation up to several weeks, particularly of inmates accused of participating in pro-independence activities.”  

Moroccan occupation threatens rape

In 2014, when Mahfouda took part in protests calling for the release of political prisoners and the inclusion of human rights monitoring in MINURSO’s mandate, she was physically assaulted several times. In January that year, the Moroccan security officials left her face with multiple injuries after an attack, and threatened her with rape if she took part in more protests. 

A month later, in February, while out on a walk one evening with family, “four police cars stopped beside us and a number of officers got out. They began to attack me, in front of my husband and kids… My husband tried to rescue me, but they hit him too,” according to her testimony published in a report by the Norwegian Students’ and Academics’ International Assistance Fund (SAIH).  

“They.. told me that they were going to rape me,” she added. “They then told us they would take my daughter and rape her too. She was 11 years old at the time.” When Mahfouda refused to yield to threats and continued protesting, she was subjected to multiple assaults in April, during which Moroccan policemen tried to strip her.  

Rape is not an idle threat under Moroccan occupation. Sultana Khayya, a prominent human rights defender and Sahrawi activist, was gang-raped and tortured several times along with her sister after being put under house arrest in November 2020 soon after the war resumed as Morocco broke the ceasefire with PF. 

“Mahfouda, like all Sahrawi women, has been subject to threats of rape several times,” Babouzeid said, adding that “almost every political prisoner from both sexes has been subjected to sexual violence in the prisons of Morocco. Sexual violence is a commonly used means of political repression by the Morrocan occupation.”

Also common is the practice of laying siege on family homes. A siege amounting to an undeclared house arrest has also been imposed on the family home of the director of Guerguerat Media Network, Sabi Yahdih, since his release from jail on May 28 after two years imprisonment for “filming without a license,” Babouzeid said.

“His mother, brother, and sister were beaten because they stepped out to the front of their house to receive him. Hundreds of Sahrawi activists have been prevented from visiting him after his release from prison.”

‘Morocco committing crimes against humanity’

Babouzeid argues that the widespread nature of the human rights violations by Morocco amounts to crimes against humanity. He insists that such crimes laid out in international law are applicable because the UN has recognized and reaffirmed time and again that Western Sahara is occupied by Morocco, whose claim to sovereignty over the territory has no legitimacy. 

Western Sahara has been on the UN’s list of countries that are yet to be decolonized since 1963. The fact that Moroccan forces are at war with Western Sahara people’s UN-recognized international representative, the Polisario Front, warrants the application of the Geneva Conventions, Babouzeid reasoned. 

The International Court of Justice, the Court of Justice of the European Union, the United Kingdom High Court of Justice, and the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights have all recognized that Morocco is illegally occupying Western Sahara.  

Nevertheless, since the time former colonizer Spain ceded the country to Morocco at the persuasion of the US in 1976, the occupation has been consistently backed by the US, the UK, and the EU, which are extracting Western Sahara’s resources in cahoots with Morocco.

Read: Ahead of UN session, Sahrawis recollect decades of betrayal that enabled Moroccan colonization      

“Africa can… definitely turn the last page of the history of abhorrent colonialism, disgraceful occupation, and shameful plundering of its wealth” only with Western Sahara’s independence, Algeria’s Foreign Minister Ahmed Attaf remarked in his Africa Liberation Day speech on May 25.