Our Voices

Call for Release of Sahrawi Activist Mohamed Al-Bambary

(May 15, 2020, Washington D.C.) — Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights and Freedom Now urge the Government of Morocco to immediately release Mohamed Al-Bambary and all political prisoners in light of the growing threat posed by the COVID-19 pandemic.

A journalist and Sahrawi activist, Mr. Al-Bambary had reported on human rights abuses committed by the Moroccan government in Western Sahara before his arrest in 2015. He was tortured, denied fundamental fair trial rights, and sentenced to six years in prison in violation of international law. Despite a decision from the U.N. Working Group on Arbitrary Detention in 2018 calling for his release, Mr. Al-Bambary continues to be arbitrarily detained in conditions that jeopardize his life and safety.

The overcrowded and unsanitary conditions Mr. Al-Bambary faces in Ait Melloul prison present a dangerous risk for an outbreak of COVID-19. Currently, he is being held with approximately 45 other prisoners in a cell that is 8 meters by 6 meters, leaving each prisoner only one square meter of space. Under such conditions, physical distancing to prevent the spread of COVID-19 is impossible. The prison itself is overcrowded at 113 percent of capacity. There is only one doctor available for the approximately 800 persons detained in the complex with him.

The Government of Morocco recognizes the COVID-19 pandemic will likely have a devastating impact on persons in detention. On April 5, 2020, King Mohammed VI of Morocco pardoned 5,654 prisoners on the basis of “age, frail health, time spent in prison and good conduct,” in an effort to protect them from the COVID-19 outbreak. However, political prisoners and those detained on the basis of exercising their right to freedom of expression were not prioritized for release. Moreover, the limited steps that Ait Melloul prison has taken in response to the global pandemic are insufficient to protect Mr. Al-Bambary and the other prisoners from an anticipated outbreak.

U.N. experts have called on all governments to release political prisoners and reduce prison populations in light of the anticipated deadly impact of the pandemic in overcrowded and unsanitary prisons. The U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet and the U.N. Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions Agnes Callamard have called on governments to take urgent action to reduce the numbers of persons detained, especially those detained “without sufficient legal basis,” such as those imprisoned for exercising their right to freedom of expression. Dozens of U.N. Special Procedures have also called on all governments to provide appropriate support to persons in detention in the wake of the COVID-19 crisis and to take additional measures to protect “those who are at most risk of being disproportionately affected by the crisis.”

Given these heightened risks to life and health posed by the COVID-19 pandemic, the Government of Morocco must urgently act to release Mohamed Al-Bambary in line with the decision of the U.N. Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, and to free all political prisoners.