- The Washington Times - Monday, May 16, 2005

“Please, will somebody notice us?” That is the plea of the 408 Moroccan prisoners of war currently held by the Polisario Front in the Western Sahara. With many having been incarcerated for over two decades, they are currently the longest-serving POWs in the world. Six recently released POWs who met with The Washington Times Editorial Board yesterday told their tragic tales of torture, mutilation and starvation at the hands of their captors. All had been prisoners for more than 20 years. “We have lost everything,” said one. Today, they will meet with Sen. John McCain — himself a Vietnam POW — for a press conference on Capitol Hill to bring notice to the flagrant human rights violations being committed in a long-forgotten corner of the world.

The conflict between Morocco and the Algerian-backed Polisario Front goes back to the 1970s. The Polisario Front represents the Saharawi tribe, who claim sovereignty of the region today known as Western Sahara, and includes portions of southwestern Morocco and western Algeria, where they are based at the city of Tindouf. Beginning in 1975, Morocco and the Polisario fought a bloody guerrilla war over the disputed region. In 1991, both sides agreed to a U.N.-brokered cease-fire under which they agreed to release their thousands of POWs as required by the Geneva Conventions. Instead, the Polisario Front has used Moroccan POWs as political leverage to elicit aid and funds from non-governmental organizations.

According to accounts of the six recently released Moroccan POWs, which are corroborated by Amnesty International, the International Committee of the Red Cross and the Fondation France Libertes, conditions in the refugee camps are beyond horrid. “The POWs had to sleep inside containers, or in trenches they had to dig,” according to a 2003 report from France Libertes. The report found cases in which POWs were burned alive, electrocuted, castrated and beaten to death. One inmate, Finidi Omar, who was captured at the age of 19 in 1987, refused to do forced labor. As punishment, he was locked in a 1 meter by 1 meter “tin trunk from which he could only get out one hour a day,” according to the report. He was eventually executed.

International efforts to release the POWs finally has been gaining momentum. In 2000, the ICRC managed to negotiate with Polisario officials for one day of rest for the POWs, but forced labor continues. Last month, the U.N. Security Council passed its fourth resolution “urging the Polisario Front to release without delay all remaining prisoners of war in compliance with international humanitarian law.” The State Department has also called for the prisoners’ immediate release and Mr. McCain yesterday sent a letter to Polisario Front Secretary-General Mohamed Abdelaziz.

The same rationale governing terrorist organizations must apply to the Polisario Front. As long as it continues to hold human beings in bondage, it must be regarded as an enemy of civilization.

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