By Aziz El Yaakoubi
RABAT, April 7 – Moroccan authorities have expelled eight European activists they said were in the country to undermine public order by supporting prisoners from Western Sahara protests in 2010, the interior ministry said on Thursday.
A Moroccan military court jailed 24 Western Saharan activists accused of killing members of the security forces who stormed a protest camp, known as Gdeim Izik, in the disputed territory in 2010.
Moroccan authorities say 13 people were killed – including 10 security officers, a firefighter and two civilians – and dozens injured in November 2010 when authorities dismantled a camp where thousands of Western Saharans, known as Sahrawis, were protesting.
The 21 who remain in jail have been on hunger strike for more than a month to protest their sentences, rights groups said.
Tensions over the Western Sahara territory have been high since last month when Morocco decided to expel members of a U.N. mission there over comments by United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon which Rabat deemed offensive.
The interior ministry said a group of Europeans representing what it described as the “so-called international collective” supporting prisoners of Gdeim Izik had been expelled.
“Local authorities of the city of Rabat have decided to expel eight foreign citizens, including two French nationals, one Belgian and five Spaniards, for attempting to undermine public order,” its statement said.
Joseph Breham, a member of the group and a lawyer of one of the prisoners, said the group was arrested when they arrived at their hotel in Rabat on Wednesday.
“Authorities were planning to expel them by boat via Tangiers, but when they protested they finally put them on a plane from Rabat airport on Thursday morning,” Breham told Reuters by phone.
The Rabat group were given varying prison sentences with eight of the 24 being jailed for life. Three of the accused who received the lightest sentences have already served their terms and have been freed.
National and international right groups, including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, have been calling on the Moroccan authorities to free or retry the group.
Morocco took over most of the Western Sahara in 1975 from colonial Spain. That triggered a guerrilla war with the Sahrawi people’s Polisario Front, which says the desert territory in the northwest of Africa belongs to it.
The United Nations brokered a ceasefire in 1991 and sent in its MINURSO mission to help organize a referendum on the future of the territory. But the sides have been deadlocked on how to proceed ever since.