Sidi Mohammed Daddach: Sweet Taste of Freedom

“On death row, one smiles during the day,” Sidi Mohammed Daddach recently told the Oslo news agency Afrol News. “In the evening, the smile disappears. That is the time for executions and you never know if you are next in line.”

That end-of-the-day fear is one that Daddach, a political prisoner until just over a year ago, knows intimately. In a lifetime that spans 46 years, he has spent a total of 24 years as a political prisoner in Morocco; 14 of those were on death row. His crime? Speaking out against Morocco’s occupation of his home, the disputed region of  Western Sahara. Morocco, which annexed its southwestern neighbor in 1975, continues to occupy the former Spanish colony despite the fact that the United Nations and the Hague’s International Court of Justice have dismissed its territorial claim.

In his years in prison, Daddach became a forceful symbol of  Western Sahara’s struggle for liberation. He drew attention to Morocco’s human-rights violations, talking about the hundreds of Saharawis who “disappeared” after 1975. Rather than apply for his own clemency, he staged several hunger strikes in which he demanded release for all Saharawi political prisoners. In November 2001, he was released following pressure from human-rights organizations, including Amnesty International.

In November 2002, Daddach spoke out again, but this time as the recipient of Norway’s prestigious Rafto Award for human rights. Praising Norway’s commitment to human rights, Daddach also used his acceptance speech to lament that “many Saharawi human-rights activists are still today exposed to brutal treatment and unfair trials, but the only thing they demand is respect for human rights in Western Sahara.”

Much as Daddach was honored to be recognized by the Rafto Foundation, though, his trip to Norway held a bigger prize: the opportunity to be re-united after 27 years with his mother, Enguia Bakay Lahbib. During Daddach’s year of freedom, it had been impossible for mother and son to see each other, since Mrs. Lahbib was living in a closed-access refugee camp in the Algerian desert. With the help of the Norwegian Foreign Office, the frail 89-year-old woman was able to secure an Algerian passport and travel to Bergen to see her son.

“You can imagine the joy I felt when they confirmed to me she would come—just one hour before she actually came,” Daddach told Afrol News. Speaking with obvious emotion, he added, “More Saharawi mothers should be given a chance to experience this.”