RABAT // Spain's low-key handling of the case of 11 Spanish activists who claimed police helped a crowd beat them up in Moroccan-held Western Sahara has illustrated the Spanish government's determined courtship of Morocco, a strategic ally, analysts say. Police detained the campaigners two weeks ago during a demonstration for the territory's independence and sent them back to Spain, which officially accepted Morocco's denial of their allegations.
The countries cooperate but quarrel periodically, while Spain's efforts to head off rows frequently meet with criticism at home. Controversy often relates to Western Sahara, a former Spanish colony largely annexed by Morocco in 1975 and contested by the Algerian-backed Polisario Front independence movement. A 16-year war ended with a United Nations-brokered ceasefire in 1991. But stalemate has stranded more than 100,000 Saharawi refugees in the Algerian desert and crippled economic growth in North Africa.
The Polisario wants a referendum with independence as an option. Morocco rules that out and proposes a measure of autonomy instead. For Spain's prime minister, José Rodriguez Zapatero, the priority is building relations that collapsed under his predecessor, José Maria Aznar, said Miguel Larramendi, a professor of modern Arab history at the Autonomous University of Madrid. In 2002, the countries nearly came to blows after both landed soldiers on a disputed islet in the Strait of Gibraltar.
Mr Zapatero became prime minister in 2004, days after Islamist train bombings in Madrid convinced him that security cooperation with Morocco was vital, Mr Larramendi said. Today the countries work together on fighting terrorism, drug trafficking and illegal immigration, and Spain has helped usher Morocco into closer relations with the European Union. Mr Zapatero has also expressed interest in Morocco's autonomy proposal for Western Sahara, putting him at odds with about 300 Spanish civil-society groups that want independence, analysts said.
Those groups mobilised last December to support Aminatou Haidar, a Saharawi activist expelled by Morocco to Spain. Morocco allowed her to return after a 32-day hunger strike and intervention by the United States and France. In July, Morocco accused border guards at Melilla, a Spanish enclave, of beating Moroccan visitors, while Moroccan activists twice blocked trucks carrying goods into the city in August. Spain denied the accusations.
"The handling of the Melilla border has been used during the last few months by Rabat to show its discomfort in the bilateral relations," said Mr Larramendi. "And that stems from how the Aminatou Haidar crisis was managed." Spanish and Moroccan media have also reported that Morocco was angered when a Spanish military helicopter flew near King Mohamed VI's yacht off Morocco's Mediterranean coast in June.
Melilla became a battleground for Spanish politicians last month, with Mr Aznar making a surprise visit as his party, the opposition Partido Popular, accused the government of forsaking Spain's police. "Whenever there's a crisis with Morocco, it causes political tension inside Spain," said Jesús García-Luengos, a Maghreb expert at the Institute for the Study of Conflicts and Humanitarian Action, a research centre in Madrid.
Spain's interior minister, Alfredo Pérez Rubalcaba, visited Morocco last month to settle the row. Then came the visit to Laayoune, Western Sahara's main city, by 14 activists from SaharAcciones, a pro-independence group based in the Canary Islands. Eleven of them went one evening to a mainly Saharawi neighbourhood to demonstrate with T-shirts and banners displaying slogans and the flag of the Polisario.
"We found a mass of people carrying Moroccan flags, and over a hundred police in uniform," said Alexis Dorta, one of the activists. "The people jumped on us and began beating us immediately." Mr Dorta said that uniformed police at the scene did little to stop the violence, and that plainclothes police were among the group's assailants. Morocco's communication minister, Khalid Naciri, said that the demonstration was illegal and that police acted only to protect the group from angry civilians. Moroccan law forbids publicly questioning the country's rule in Western Sahara.
Police detained the 11 activists, who were held at a police station and a Spanish cultural centre before all 14 were put aboard a ferry for the Canary Islands the next day. "The incident has had no impact on our relations with Spain, which continue in good conditions," Mr Naciri said. Both countries have declared the matter closed. But Spanish activists not related to SaharAcciones say it has given urgency to a protest flotilla they plan to launch from the Canaries to Western Sahara within six months.
"We want to denounce the information blackout on human rights abuses in Western Sahara," said Willy Toledo, a well-known actor and the flotilla project's spokesman. Saharawi human rights groups say that Moroccan police violently break up pro-independence demonstrations, and have detained and beaten activists. Moroccan authorities deny those claims, and have accused Saharawi activists of working for the Polisario.
For Moroccan and Spanish leaders seeking a smooth working relationship, the challenge is moving beyond dialogue that often consists of sorting out problems, said Mr García-Luengos. "There should be more contact via development projects and academic exchange, and between Moroccan and Spanish political parties," he said. "Other conflicts are inevitable, but with better communication they don't have to blow up into crises."