Spain’s High Court on Tuesday turned down a request for Western Sahara independence leader Brahim Ghali to be taken into custody, saying the plaintiffs in a war crimes case against him had failed to provide evidence he had committed any crime.
The Polisario Front leader, who has been hospitalised in the Spanish city of Logrono for more than a month, appeared remotely before the court in Madrid.
He and other Polisario Front leaders are accused by human rights groups and Western Sahara individuals of genocide, murder, terrorism, torture and disappearances, a court document said. He denies any wrongdoing.
“The prosecution report has not provided elements of evidence supporting the existence of reasons to believe he is responsible of any crime,” a court document said.
Ghali’s presence in Spain has triggered a diplomatic crisis between Madrid and Rabat.
His Algeria-backed Polisario Front is fighting for the independence of Western Sahara, which was a Spanish colony until the mid-1970s, when it was annexed by Morocco.
It has since been considered by Morocco as part of its territory.
The Spanish government says the 71-year-old was allowed treatment in Spain as a humanitarian gesture after falling seriously ill with COVID-19.
But the move irked Morocco and led Rabat to relax border controls which allowed thousands of migrants and refugees to enter Spain’s North African enclave of Ceuta last month.
Shortly after Tuesday’s court decision, Spanish government spokeswoman Maria Jesus Montero said she expected diplomatic relations with Morocco to return to normal in the coming hours.
But despite her optimism, the decision not to detain Ghali was likely to anger Morocco.
There was no immediate comment from Rabat, but it had said on Monday that the hearing against Ghali was important to show “the real face of the Polisario”.
It said its dispute with Spain was no longer simply about Ghali but over what it saw as Spanish disrespect over the Western Sahara issue.
Rabat has withdrawn its ambassador to Madrid and says it will not fill the position if Ghali leaves Spain under the same cloak of secrecy used for his arrival and without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.
Ghali not a flight risk, court says
Tuesday’s court proceedings were a preliminary hearing, the first step towards a potential trial.
Prosecution lawyer Mariana Delmas said she had sought preventive measures against Ghali to stop him from leaving the country.
However, the court said it did not consider him a flight risk.
Ghali’s lawyer Manuel Olle said his client, who travels on an Algerian diplomatic passport, will stay in Spain until the case is resolved.
He was asking the court to drop the case, he said.
Montero said the Spanish government expected Ghali to return to where he came from once his health improves.
In a further development on Tuesday, Spain’s air navigation authority ENAIRE said air traffic controllers had denied access to Spanish airspace to a plane heading from Algiers to Logrono on instructions from the Spanish military.
Montero said she was not aware of any plane.