(WOMENSENEWS)--Pregnant women and single mothers are languishing in a secret detention center in Tindouf, a southwestern province in Algeria, charges Brahim El Selem. "It is made out of mud bricks . . . You can't see the jail because it is a hole between two hills."
El Selem says the women's detention center--which he says he visited three or four times--confines almost 30 women, some with toddlers. The structure's zinc roof provides minimal protection from the Saharan desert heat, he adds.
The women's offense? Sex outside marriage, a crime often leading to jail sentences for men and women in Muslim countries.
El Selem says he is a former police officer with the Polisario Front, an independence movement backed by Algeria in its decades-long fight with Morocco over the Western Sahara.
El Selem says women in this jail can leave under only two situations. One is when her child turns 2. The other is if a member of the Sahrawi community agrees to marry her. Marriage for single mothers is so improbable that he says that option is rarely exercised. Although one woman, he says, did resort to marrying a cousin with developmental disabilities to get out.
He says he visited the prison for unwed mothers while on patrol duty. Some of the women, he says, were rape victims who continued to suffer sexual abuse at the hands of their guards.
El Selem spoke with Women's eNews in an interview at the Moroccan mission to the United Nations in New York while he was in New York and Washington earlier this month as part of a delegation sponsored by the Moroccan Center for American Policy, a Washington-based lobby of Morocco's King Mohammed VI, a U.S. military ally and trading partner. Morocco has had administrative control over most of the Western Sahara, a mineral-rich former Spanish colony, since 1976.
El Selem's former employer, the Polisario Front, is an independence movement that has fought for control over the Western Sahara against Spain, Mauritania and Morocco.
The armed dispute between Morocco and the Polisario Front has displaced tens of thousands of Sahrawis, nomadic tribes in the Western Sahara, into Polisario-controlled refugee camps in Algeria.
Morocco and the Polisario have been engaged in a war of words since a ceasefire ended armed conflict in 1991.
"Since the shooting stopped there's been a propaganda war about human rights," said Eric Goldstein, senior researcher for Human Rights Watch Middle East and North Africa division in New York. "With the Polisario trying to portray Morocco as brutal occupiers and Morocco trying to portray Polisario as a bunch of dead-ender, washed up, Stalinist revolutionary puppets of Algeria."
Nonetheless, Goldstein thought El Selem's account was worth consideration. "They are on tour sponsored by the Moroccan government. But what they have to say is worth listening to."
Moroccan critics say that Sahrawi refugee camps impose harsh conditions on residents and that Polisario leaders smuggle and sell aid intended for the refugees. In the absence of an up-to-date census, the United Nations calculates aid for 91,000 while Algeria--which supports the Polisario Front--calls for supplies for 156,000 refugees.
El Selem's delegation, which included six former Sahrawi refugees that left the Sahrawi camps for Morocco in 2008, visited congressional representatives, media outlets and Human Rights Watch in New York.
While calling attention to the charges of abuse at the women's detention center, the delegation's main goal was to urge a U.N. census of the camp population and repatriation protocol for anyone who wants to leave a Polisario-controlled camp and return to Morocco.
When asked for his reaction to El Selem's account, Goldstein challenged the allegation of secrecy. He said Polisario leaders invited him to visit a detention center for single mothers and adulteresses during a trip to the region last November. "The authorities told us about it. It is in no way a secret prison."
"Certainly conditions in the camp are harsh," said Goldstein. "But I didn't investigate this prison, so I don't have contradictory information or information that would corroborate what they (the Sahrawi delegation) told us." He said that he declined an invitation to visit the women's detention center because it fell outside the scope of his mission. But Goldstein has since followed up on rumors of this center and says he will visit the center at the next available opportunity.
Mouloud Said, the Polisario representative in Washington, D.C., categorically denied El Selem's allegations of a detention center for unwed mothers. "I've never heard about this. This kind of allegations are not ones that you can have substantiated 5,000 miles from the place."
Report in Coming Months
Human Rights Watch will issue a report on the conditions of Sahrawis on both sides of the border in the next few months and will further investigate the women's detention center in future trips.
"Concerning mothers with children born out of wedlock," Polisario Justice Minister Hamada Salmi wrote to Goldstein in a letter dated May 6, "this matter concerns certain sexual acts that are considered crimes because they affront public modesty as per the traditions of our society and the religious upbringing of our children."
Adultery and sex outside marriage, the letter said, are crimes punishable with one to five years under articles 169 and 170 of Polisario's penal code. Women and men found guilty serve time in single-sex detention centers.
Mothers and their children typically spend one or two years until they can be "reintegrated into society." The minister's response also suggested that women were kept for their protection from so-called honor crimes, in which women are killed for committing acts that shamed their family or community.
The same letter--Goldstein provided Women's eNews with an unofficial translation--said that the women's center is called Center for Maternity Assistance because it looks after the personal health of the woman and her unborn child. The center also protects both her and her child from any unwanted attack and provides mandatory instructional therapy sessions to help them move on from their difficult circumstances.
Polisario authorities, Goldstein says, have been vague about whether the detained women have been convicted of crimes and are serving sentences or being held without a trial ostensibly for their protection from the community. However, he says, they did admit to having four to five cases of these women per year.
"We oppose women behind bars for adultery, and we oppose women behind bars for their protection unless they want that protection," Goldstein said. "It is the responsibility of authorities to protect women if there is problem of honor crimes in the community without locking them up to do so."
Dominique Soguel is Women's eNews Arabic editor.
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