RABAT — Human rights observers visiting Moroccan-held Western Sahara witnessed a woman protester being beaten by police and hospitalised, a member of the group said on Wednesday.
"We saw the woman being beaten. And then we went to hospital, where we found her badly injured," Santiago Canton, director of the Robert F. Kennedy Partners for Human Rights, told AFP by phone from a Sahrawi refugee camp in western Algeria.
"The police were very aggressive. We were told by people there that the situation has been like that for some time," he said.
The incident took place earlier this week in Laayoune, the main city under Moroccan control, during a visit to the disputed territory by the delegation, which is led by Kerry Kennedy, president of the RFK Centre for Justice and Human Rights.
In a statement published by the Washington-based group on Tuesday, the day the delegation left for Algeria, Kennedy described how a policeman lunged at her 17-year-old daughter's camera as she took photos of the incident.
Canton emphasised that the purpose of the trip was to assess the human rights situation on the ground.
He said that while the Moroccan authorities cooperated with the observers, "unfortunately they had a group of people following us everywhere we went."
The visit comes amid a row between the United Nations and Rabat, which has demanded the replacement of new UN peace envoy Christopher Ross, whom it accuses of "bias" in efforts to resolve the status of the territory.
Morocco annexed the Western Sahara in 1975 in a move never recognised by the international community.
The rebel Polisario Front, which has been campaigning for the territory's independence since before its annexation, controls a small part the desert interior and has bases in Tindouf, across the Algerian border, where some 40,000 refugees live in extreme conditions.
The rights observers travelled to Tindouf on Wednesday, where they met rights activists and families of the victims of Africa's longest-running conflict.
They were due to meet representatives of UN agencies and NGOs working there before holding talks with Polisario leaders.
"It is moving to see women who have such terrible stories of human rights violations committed against them or their relatives not admit to being defeated or broken," Kennedy was quoted as saying by the official Algerian news agency APS.
Some Moroccan MPs have strongly criticised the group's visit.
Morocco's Foreign Minister Saad Eddine El Otmani, cited by the official MAP news agency on Wednesday, said he hoped the visit to Western Sahara and Tindouf would allow the group "to realise the gross abuses suffered by the populations in the camps."
The delegation will publish a report at the end of the trip, which is due to wind up on Thursday.
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