Brahim Ghali: Polisario Front leader at heart of Ceuta row denies genocide

Probe continues after court told prosecution failed to provide sufficient evidence of war crimes

(FILES) In this file photo taken on February 27, 2021 Brahim Ghali, President of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SARD) and Secretary-General of the Polisario front, attends celebrations marking the 45th anniversary of the creation of the SARD, at a refugee camp on the outskirts of the southwestern Algerian city of Tindouf.   The leader of the Western Sahara independence movement, Brahim Ghali, at the heart of a diplomatic spat between Spain and Morocco will appear before a Madrid court on June 1, 2021 to answer allegations of torture. / AFP / RYAD KRAMDI

The leader of an armed group seeking independence from Morocco has denied allegations of torture and genocide at a court appearance in Spain.

Brahim Ghali on Tuesday responded to the allegations before an investigating magistrate at Spain's High Court in Madrid.

He spoke via videolink from a hospital in the northern Spanish city of Logrono where he was admitted last month after falling ill with a severe case of Covid-19.

Mr Ghali is accused by human rights groups of committing war crimes while at the helm of the Polisario Front, based in refugee camps in western Algeria, claims that he rejects.

The Polisario Front has long wanted an end to the North African country's rule.

A request for Mr Ghali to be taken into custody was denied after the prosecution failed to provide evidence he had committed a crime.

"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.

The magistrate ruled after Mr Ghali's testimony that he should remain free while the investigation continues. The judge will then decide if there is enough evidence to bring charges.

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

He was allowed treatment in Spain as a humanitarian gesture, the government said, but the move angered Morocco and led Rabat to relax border controls, allowing thousands of migrants to enter Spain's North African enclave of Ceuta last month.

Manuel Olle, lawyer of the leader of Western Sahara's independence movement and president of the Sahrawi Democratic Arab Republic, Brahim Ghali, speaks to journalists outside the Spain's National Court in Madrid on June 1, 2021. The leader of Western Sahara's independence movement, whose presence in Spain has angered Morocco, was being questioned by a Spanish judge today about allegations of torture and genocide in a closed-door hearing with Brahim Ghali, who heads the Algeria-backed Polisario Front, testifying by video conference from a hospital in northern Spain where he is recovering from a severe case of Covid-19. / AFP / PIERRE-PHILIPPE MARCOU

Rabat withdrew its ambassador to Madrid and said it would not fill the position if Mr Ghali leaves Spain under the same cloak of secrecy used for his arrival and without answering the war crime allegations.

Shortly after Tuesday's court decision, Spanish government spokeswoman Maria Jesus Montero said she expected diplomatic relations with Morocco to soon return to normal.

There was no immediate comment from Rabat, but it had said on Monday that Mr Ghali's hearing was to show "the real face of the Polisario".

The Spanish magistrate is assessing two complaints against Mr Ghali. One accuses him of torture and other crimes and was brought in 2019 by a Sahrawi activist and Polisario dissident. The magistrate also reopened an earlier genocide probe, launched in 2008, against Mr Ghali and 27 Polisario members.

Mr Ghali's lawyer, Manuel Olle, said his client denied the charges and would file a request for the charges to be dismissed.

Mariana Delmas, representing the dissident who accuses Mr Ghali of torture, said the court refused her request for Mr Ghali's detention while the investigation continues.