By Inti Landauro and Guillermo Martinez
MADRID (Reuters) – Spain’s High Court on Tuesday rejected a request to detain Western Sahara independence leader Brahim Ghali, saying plaintiffs in a war crimes case against him failed to provide evidence that ‘he had committed a crime.
The leader of the Polisario Front, hospitalized in the Spanish city of Logroño 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 individuals in Western Sahara of genocide, murder, terrorism, torture and disappearances, according to a court document. He denies any wrongdoing.
“The prosecution report did not provide any evidence to support the existence of reasons to believe that he is responsible for any crime,” said a court document.
The development was a new twist in a dispute between Madrid and Rabat over Ghali.
The Spanish government said he was allowed treatment in Spain as a humanitarian gesture, but the move angered Morocco and led Rabat to relax border controls, which allowed thousands of migrants to enter the North African enclave of Ceuta last month.
Shortly after Tuesday’s court ruling, Spanish government spokeswoman Maria Jesus Montero said she expected diplomatic relations with Morocco to return to normal in the coming hours.
But despite his optimism, the decision not to detain Ghali risked angering Morocco.
There was no immediate comment from Rabat, but he said on Monday that the hearing against Ghali was important to show “the true face of the Polisario”.
He said his dispute with Spain was no longer just about Ghali but about what he saw as a lack of Spanish respect on the Western Sahara issue.
In another development, Spain’s air navigation authority Enaire said air traffic controllers denied access to Spanish airspace to a plane going from Algiers to Logroño on instructions from the Spanish military.
Government spokeswoman Montero said she was not aware of any planes.
The Algerian-backed Polisario Front of Ghali is fighting for the independence of Western Sahara, which was a Spanish colony until the mid-1970s and has since been considered by Morocco as part of its own territory.
Tuesday’s court proceedings were a preliminary hearing, the first step towards a potential trial.
Prosecutor lawyer Mariana Delmas said she had called for preventive measures against Ghali to prevent him from leaving the country. However, the court said it did not consider it a flight risk.
Ghali’s lawyer Manuel Olle said his client, who is traveling on an Algerian diplomatic passport, will remain in Spain until the case is resolved. He was asking the court to drop the case, he said.
Montero said the Spanish government expects Ghali to return to where he came from once his health improves. Spanish authorities have remained vigilant in the event of new problems at the border, she added.
(Reporting by Inti Landauro, Guillermo Martinez and Clara-Laeila Laudette in Madrid and Ahmed El Jechtimi in Rabat; edited by Nathan Allen and Angus MacSwan)
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