Dániel Stemler

Hassanna Aalia is young Sahrawi activist who has been living is Spain for more than three years. Born in 1988 in El Aaiún, the capital of occupied Western Sahara, Aalia has been politically active since the age of 17 and has worked to publicize Morocco's brutal repression of the Sahrawi population. He was a participant in the 2010 Gdeim Izik protest camp and, as a consequence of his role in these demonstrations, a Moroccan military court in Rabat sentenced him to life imprisonment in absentia. In 2012 Aalia sought political asylum in Spain. Despite meeting the requirements, he was notified in late January that his asylum request was denied and given a compulsory order to leave the country in 15 days. This week marks the expiration of that deadline, and Aalia’s legal counsel has signaled the possibility of appealing to the Supreme Court if Spain doesn’t present a reason for refusing to grant political asylum status. Since last Friday, several demonstrations took place in different Spanish cities to draw attention to Aalia’s situation. 11 activists of the Saharacciones Association have been on hunger strike in the Madrid-Barajas Airport. Further protests took place at the Ministry of Interior.

Western Sahara, a former Spanish colony, has been illegally occupied by Morocco since 1975. After 16 years of bloody war between Morocco and the Sahrawi liberation movement, the Polisario Front, a 1991 ceasefire brokered by the UN promised a referendum in Western Sahara. But native Sahrawis have still been waiting for a solution and for political autonomy. Leading states such as the United States and Russia have been ambivalent, asking both Morocco and the Polisario Front to agree on a peaceful resolution. Several African governments and most of the Arab League currently recognize Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara. Meanwhile, the Polisario Front gained formal recognition from 53 states.

Many Sahrawis currently live in inhumane conditions on their own land, or as refugees in Tindouf, Algeria. Though the International Court of Justice recognized the Sahrawi people as the legitimate owners of Western Sahara, Morocco hasn’t moved its hundreds of thousands of settlers from the territory. The international community seemingly ignores the possibility to find a solution to this problem and through several economic and political sanctions even supports the occupation. In December 10, 2013, on International Human Rights Day, the European Union enacted a mutually beneficial agreement with the Moroccan government over Western Sahara. ”The European Parliament voted to approve an agreement that not only provides moral cover for the Moroccan occupation of Western Sahara, it provides material support for it. The EU agreement grants access to Moroccan waters for European fishing companies, the majority of them Spanish, in return for payments of around $55m. It also provides access, in direct contravention of a UN legal counsel statement from 2002, to Western Sahara's waters,” said The Independent.

Morocco currently controls the majority of the territory and takes advantage of the natural resources. Several oil companies have begun oil exploration in Western Sahara. Kosmos Energy, Cairn Energy, and Morocco’s National Office for Hydrocarbons and Mines will all drill this year off the coast of the occupied territory, even though it is a clear violation of international law. The Sahrawis made it clear that they are against oil exploration: “Petroleum exploration serves as a further pretext to justify Morocco’s illegal occupation of Western Sahara,” declared the Sahrawi government. Dividedly and without legal authority, Western Sahara probably would not see any benefits from oil as they face prolonged occupation and economic utilization.

While Aalia lingers in the balance of international politics, the Moroccan government has launched a manhunt to find him. “It is a dangerous situation. Recently, they published my photo in a Moroccan website and more than 800 people were requested to find me wherever I am. If anything happens, the Spanish government will be responsible. In matters of asylum, the country where you are has to protect the applicant and I have not yet got such protection,” Aalia said in a recent interview. “The Moroccan police isolate you, humiliate you, hit you, and threaten you,” he told El País.

And the Spanish government doesn’t seem keen to save Aalia from prison and torture. Which is not surprising, considering that Spain takes serious the economic advantage of the Moroccan occupation over Western Sahara, and would prefer not to compromise their relationship with a profitable ally even as they violate human rights. This raises the question of whether a judgment of a Moroccan military court over is an appropriate basis for Spain to deny political asylum. It’s safe to say that the objectivity of such a court is highly questionable. According to Javier Canivell, head of the Legal Service of the Spanish Commission for Refugee Aid (CEAR-Euskadi), the denial “was based on the process in Rabat, without questioning the judgment.”

“I would like to ask the Spanish government to stand up for justice because they are negotiating with the Moroccan government by economic interests and natural resources being stolen from Western Sahara," Aalia said. "Do not put economic interests above human rights above the rights of the Sahrawi people because history is watching them.”

Image via Observatorio aragonés para el Sahara Occidental.

Dániel Stemler is a Madrid-based Hungarian online and video journalist covering North Africa, the Middle East, the Sahel region, and Europe. He is mostly interested in international politics, current affairs, human rights, Spanish-Arab relations, Central and Eastern European affairs, and armed conflicts. He received his BA from University of Debrecen (Hungary) in 2013 in Cultural Management and Communication and Media Studies. He holds an MA from Complutense University of Madrid in Professional Multimedia Journalism. Twitter: @StemDan