The trial of Nazha El Khalidi, the journalist and activist in Western Sahara

By Dominique Lewis and Nika Hajikhodaverdikhan

Recent media coverage has spotlighted female human rights activists Nasrin Sotoudeh — an Iranian writer and human rights lawyer sentenced to 33 years in prison — and Loujain al-Hathloul, a Saudi Arabian on trial for denouncing her government’s “guardianship” system for women and her connections to human rights organizations.

An image from Laayoune, the largest city of Western Sahara.

While it is critical that news publications, such as The New York Times, and international non-governmental organizations, like Amnesty International, inform the public and spark resistance to these trials of female activists, the world should know about another important female journalist and human rights activist facing trial by the Moroccan government this week: Nazha El Khalidi.

The Moroccan government has charged El Khalidi, a Sahrawi journalist and human rights and media activist, with “professional usurpation” for not having a journalism degree. El Khalidi has been working as a journalist in Western Sahara, a territory Morocco has occupied for 43 years.

“We urge international human rights monitors and media to demand that Morocco respect freedom of the press and of expression in Western Sahara, and to stop harassing Sahrawi journalists. We are asking Morocco to drop charges against Nazha and to free Sahrawi journalists who are in prison for just doing their jobs.”

The Moroccan police originally arrested El Khalidi on December 4, 2018, when she live-streamed a demonstration in support of renewed UN-sponsored talks in Geneva between the Sahrawi Polisario Front and Morocco to resolve the 43-year-old conflict. The video captures the moment when police chase her. She said that she was later beaten and arrested and that her cell phone was confiscated. Equipe Media, a citizen media collective that clandestinely films and shares videos showing human rights violations committed by Moroccan forces in the territory of Western Sahara, says that El Khalidi was taken to police headquarters, interrogated, and suffered ill treatment for several hours.

El Khaldi is well known in the Western Sahara territory for her work through Equipe Media and RASD-TV. Through those media organizations, she films videos of protests in Western Sahara, which often result in documented violence from the Moroccan security forces using force against the peaceful Sahrawi protesters.

This trial is alarming for several reasons. First, many human rights and media activist rights organizations are concerned that this could be an attempt by the Moroccan government to criminalize and silence Sahrawi human rights activists and journalists.

Equipe Media and Watching Western Sahara, a media collective that curates and shares citizen videos from Western Sahara, made an urgent appeal: “We urge international human rights monitors and media to demand that Morocco respect freedom of the press and of expression in Western Sahara, and to stop harassing Sahrawi journalists. We are asking Morocco to drop charges against Nazha and to free Sahrawi journalists who are in prison for just doing their jobs”.

Second, if El Khalidi is found guilty of “claiming or usurping a title associated with a profession that is regulated by law without meeting the necessary conditions to use it,” she will face harsh consequences. Article 381 of the Moroccan Penal Code states that El Khalidi could be sentenced anywhere from three months to two years, and she could be expected to pay a fine of between 120 Dirhams (32.67 US dollars) and 5000 Dirhams (1361.28 US dollars).

It is not an easy task to risk one’s safety in the midst of ambiguous media laws, with equally ambiguous consequences from law enforcement — especially when the world isn’t yet watching her case.

It is therefore critical for us to support and amplify the voices and reports of journalists and activists. Major media and international NGOs often rely on independent journalists such as El Khalidi to accurately convey the the real-time reality of the conditions and treatment of citizens within occupied states.

As UC Berkeley students in the Human Rights Investigations Lab, we write this piece with two purposes in mind: 1) to request the cancellation of Nazha El Khalidi’s trial by the Moroccan government and 2) to encourage other individuals, organizations, and even nations to explicitly account for and declare opposition to the unlawful measures of the various branches of Moroccan authorities and law enforcement.

We hope that with this greater public awareness and the spread of the activists’ content revealing atrocities in Western Sahara and more broadly, global platforms will be forced to scrutinize the way that Morocco responds to the Sahrawi protestors and reporters.

We hope this post has heightened international awareness on El Khalidi’s case and will discourage the Moroccan state from committing unlawful detentions and other crimes against human rights activists for fear of US or UN intervention in their practices. We urge readers to take part in this awareness campaign and to stand strong behind Sahrawis during these desperate and difficult times.

** This post is written by Dominique Lewis and Nika Hajikhodaverdikhan who are students in the Human Rights Center’s Human Rights Investigations Lab, where they use open source investigative methods to conduct human rights research. In this post they report on current events in the non self-governed territory of occupied Western Sahara.