Western Sahara independence chief testifies in Spanish court

MADRID (AP) — The leader of a movement seeking independence from Morocco testified Tuesday in a Spanish investigation into allegations against him of torture, genocide and other crimes.

Brahim Ghali appeared before an investigating magistrate at the National Court in Madrid via videoconference from a hospital in Logroño, a northern Spanish city where the 71-year old was hospitalized last month after falling seriously ill with COVID-19.

The magistrate ruled after Ghali’s testimony that he should remain free while the investigation continues, saying he has an address and phone number in Spain where he can be contacted. The judge will decide after his preliminary investigation whether there is enough evidence to bring charges.

Ghali heads the Polisario Front and the self-declared Sahrawi Democratic Arab Republic, based in refugee camps in western Algeria. Morocco annexed Western Sahara in the 1970s, and the Polisario Front has long wanted to end Moroccan rule over Western Sahara.

Ghali checked into the Spanish hospital under a false identity after arriving in the country by plane with an Algerian diplomatic passport and with the consent of the Spanish government.

His presence in Spain has infuriated Morocco and triggered a diplomatic crisis between the two countries, which have been cooperating in fighting terrorism, drug smuggling and migration into Europe.

Rabat has withdrawn its ambassador to Madrid and says it won’t fill the position if Ghali leaves Spain under the same cloak of secrecy used for his arrival and without answering the allegations he committed crimes.

The Spanish magistrate is assessing two complaints targeting Ghali. One alleging torture and other crimes was brought in 2019 by a Sahrawi activist and Polisario dissident. The magistrate has also re-opened an earlier genocide probe, launched in 2008, against Ghali and 27 other Polisario members.

Ghali’s lawyer, Manuel Ollé, said his client denied the charges, which he attributed to Moroccan efforts to discredit the Polisario Front. He said he would file a request for the charges to be dismissed.

Mariana Delmas, representing the dissident who accuses Ghali of torture, said the court refused her request for Ghali to be detained while the investigation continues.