The diplomatic rift between Spain and Morocco widened on Tuesday when a Madrid judge ruled that the leader of the Western Sahara independence movement, being treated in a Spanish hospital, was free to leave the country.
Brahim Ghali, head of the Polisario Front, which has since the 1970s fought for Western Sahara’s independence from Morocco, arrived in Spain last month, precipitating a migrant crisis with Rabat over the north African enclave of Ceuta.
A high court judge declined to place Ghali in detention, saying allegations that he was involved in torture and disappearances were not corroborated by plaintiffs in the war crimes case against him.
Ghali’s lawyer, speaking after the Western Saharan leader had given evidence via video from a hospital in the Rioja region, said the claims against his client were a politically motivated attack on the Western Sahara cause.
Rabat claims sovereignty over the desert region, which is roughly the size of the UK, and a 30-year ceasefire with Polisario broke down at the end of last year.
The Moroccan government sees Ghali as one of its principal enemies. His arrival in Spain in April, for Covid-19 treatment, was followed by a migrant crisis, when around 10,000 migrants crossed over from Morocco to the Spanish enclave of Ceuta in 48 hours.
Although Spanish officials say Morocco border guards allowed and encouraged the crossings, Rabat denies that the incursion was in any way connected with Ghali’s case, and has readmitted around 8,500 people.
But the Moroccan foreign affairs ministry declared on Monday that the case “exposed the hostile attitudes and harmful strategies of Spain towards the question of the Moroccan Sahara [and] revealed the collusion of our northern neighbour with the Kingdom’s adversaries to undermine the territorial integrity of Morocco”.
The ministry drew a parallel between the Western Sahara dispute and Catalan independence, arguing that Rabat had consistently backed Spain’s territorial integrity. It added: “How in this context can Morocco trust Spain again? How does one know that Spain will not plot again with the enemies of the Kingdom?”
Algeria, Morocco’s neighbour and longstanding rival, is Polisario’s main backer, hosting the group in its territory and providing its leaders with passports to travel on.
In response to Rabat’s statement, María Jesús Montero, Spain’s ministerial spokesperson, said on Tuesday that it was “not acceptable for the Moroccan government to defy [Spain’s] border and territorial integrity because of differences in this dispute.” She emphasised Madrid’s position on the Western Sahara was in line with UN resolutions.
On Tuesday, the European Commission said it expected that the “deep relationship” between the two countries would allow them to reduce tensions.
Riccardo Fabiani, north Africa director at the International Crisis Group, a conflict-resolution organisation, also expressed doubts about how much Morocco would escalate the rift with Spain.
Relations between Morocco and Germany are already under strain and the Kingdom recalled its ambassador in Berlin for consultation last month — also after tensions over Western Sahara.
After the Trump administration recognised Moroccan sovereignty over the region in December — in return for Morocco’s normalisation of ties with Israel — Germany called for a closed-door UN Security Council meeting to debate the status of the region.
“I doubt Morocco will want another problem with Spain,” said Fabiani. “It is already waging a diplomatic war against the most important and most powerful country in Europe. This would make it isolated in Europe even though it will still have France as an advocate.”