A Spanish judge on Tuesday declined to order that the leader of Western Sahara’s movement, who is under investigation in Spain for torture and genocide, be taken into custody.
Brahim Ghali, who heads the Algeria-backed Polisario Front, denied the allegations against him as he testified by video conference from a hospital in northern Spain where he is recovering from a severe case of Covid-19.
Spain says he was allowed into the country in April for treatment as a humanitarian gesture but the move has angered Morocco, triggering a major diplomatic spat between Rabat and Madrid.
Ghali is facing two investigations in Spain following accusations of genocide, murder, torture and disappearances made against him by a Sahrawi activist and a Spain-based Western Sahara rights group.
During the closed-door hearing at the National Court in Madrid, the judge turned down a request from the complainants for Ghali to be taken into custody and turn over his passport, saying he posed no flight risk.
Ghali, who is also the president of the Sahrawi Democratic Arab Republic, a self-declared state since 1976, was only asked to provide an address and a telephone number in Spain where he could be reached.
The decision means there is nothing to stop Ghali from leaving Spain, a scenario feared by Rabat and the complainants who want him to face trial in the country.
After he completes his investigation, the judge will decide whether to dismiss the lawsuits against Ghali or charge the Polisario leader.
Spanish government spokeswoman Maria Jesus Montero said Ghali could “return to his country of origin, where he came from” once he recovers his health.
– Algerian plane returns –
Spanish online newspaper El Confidencial reported that an Algerian government plane had departed on Tuesday morning for Logrono to pick up Ghali but then turned backed.
A “state” jet flying from Algeria to the Spanish city of Logrono where Ghali is hospitalised turned back on instructions from the Spanish military, a spokesman for civil air authority Enaire told AFP.
But Montero said she had “no knowledge of any flight which was sent back or stopped.”
Citing diplomatic sources, Spain’s El Pais newspaper said Ghali was “critically ill” when he arrived on a medicalised Algerian government plane on April 18, bearing a diplomatic passport.
It said he was admitted to the hospital under a false name for “security reasons”.
Rabat, which considers Ghali to be a “war criminal”, has demanded a “transparent investigation” into Ghali’s arrival in Spain with what it said was a forged passport.
His Algeria-backed Polisario Front has long fought for the independence of Western Sahara, a desert region bigger than Britain which was a Spanish colony until 1975.
Morocco controls 80 percent of the territory, while the rest — an area bordering Mauritania that is almost totally landlocked — is run by the Polisario Front.
– ‘Totally false’ –
One of the lawsuits relates to allegations of torture at Sahrawi refugee camps in Tindouf, a town in western Algeria.
The accusations were made in 2020 by Sahrawi activist Fadel Breika, who also holds Spanish nationality.
While a Spanish court initially rejected the complaint, it agreed to reopen the case earlier this year.
“The tortures are confirmed by thousands of witnesses,” said Breika’s lawyer, Maria Jose Malagon Ruiz del Valle.
The second investigation relates to allegations of genocide, murder, terrorism, torture and disappearances made in 2007 by the Sahrawi Association for the Defence of Human Rights (ASADEDH) which is based in Spain.
Ghali’s lawyer, Manuel Olle, said the accusations against his client “are totally false” and are “politically motivated to target the credibility of the Sahrawi people”.
He also suggested that Rabat was behind the lawsuits against Ghali in Spain.
The UN refers to Western Sahara as a “non-self-governing territory”.
After 16 years of war, Rabat and the Polisario signed a ceasefire in 1991, but a UN-backed referendum on self-determination has been repeatedly postponed.
Morocco is willing to offer it within Morocco but not independence.