The United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention (WGAD) has urged the Moroccan authorities to immediately release Yahya Mohamed Elhafed Iaazza, the oldest Saharawi political prisoner in Western Sahara, who is serving a 15 year sentence.

Yahya Mohamed, 55 years old and father of three children, has been in prison for 14 years; he was arbitrarily arrested by Morocco for his activism, forced to confess under torture, tried and deprived of the right to a defence lawyer, according to the WGAD’s findings.

The Working Group has found that he was targeted solely because of his Saharawi identity and his political and human rights activities and should never have been arrested, tried or imprisoned.

Yahya Mohamed was arrested in 2008 in the Moroccan city of Tan Tan for his Sahrawi origin and for being an influential Sahrawi activist with a prominent role in the Western Sahara independence movement.

At the time of his arrest, Iaaza was president of the Sahrawi human rights organisation CODESA in Tan Tan, defending Sahrawi victims of torture and political prisoners. He was accused of organising a protest on 27 February 2008 that led to the death of a Moroccan police officer and which he never attended. The UN Working Group has found no grounds for this accusation and cites numerous irregularities in the trial; several international organisations demanded his release and claimed that the detention was related to his activism.

Elhafed suffered torture, ill-treatment, medical neglect, discrimination and isolation during his 14 years of detention. He suffers from asthma, rheumatism and the effects of hunger strikes, the longest lasting 62 days to denounce his unhealthy situation.

“My father has not been allowed to be a father to us since his detention, but he took many young Sahrawi prisoners under his wing, whom he comforted and taught to survive their ordeal physically and mentally,” said his daughter Fatou Elhafed Iaazza, adding: “This is what he is like: a big, kind and loving man. We need him to come back.

The 307 member organisations of the Geneva Support Group for the Protection and Promotion of Human Rights in Western Sahara have joined the call for the immediate release of Elhafed Iaazza and all other imprisoned Sahrawi human rights defenders.

The members of the Geneva Support Group welcomed the decision of the WGAD and called on all states to ensure its effective implementation by the Kingdom of Morocco. They also called on the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, to publicly disclose the systematic and serious violations of international humanitarian and human rights law documented by her office and to ensure an early visit to the region and to all imprisoned Saharawi human rights defenders.

Why is Morocco keeping an innocent man in prison?” asked jurist Tone Soerfonn Moe, Elhafed Iaaza’s international representative. “We have been asking this question for years, ever since he was arrested, and now the UN Working Group has added its voice.