(Adds Moroccan government reaction)
RABAT, Dec 19 (Reuters) - Human Rights Watch accused Morocco on Friday of beating and torturing independence campaigners in Western Sahara and said U.N. peacekeepers should start monitoring human rights in the territory.
The Moroccan government condemned the New York-based group’s findings as excessively critical towards Morocco and indulgent towards Western Sahara independence movement Polisario.
Morocco took control of most of Western Sahara in 1975 when colonial power Spain withdrew, sparking a war with Polisario that displaced tens of thousands of people to Polisario-run camps in the Algerian desert.
The United Nations brokered a ceasefire in 1991 and sent in peacekeepers to monitor troop and military equipment movements.
In a 216-page report, Human Rights Watch (HRW) accused Polisario of marginalising those who oppose its leadership.
"The population of the camps remains vulnerable to abuse due to the camps’ isolation, the lack of any regular independent human rights monitoring and reporting, and Algeria’s claim that the Polisario, rather than Algeria itself, is responsible for protecting the human rights of the camps’ residents," HRW said.
HRW said Morocco bans and disperses peaceful protests in the territory and denies recognition to human rights organisations. It accused Moroccan police of beating pro-independence demonstrators and sometimes torturing people in their custody.
"Morocco uses a combination of repressive laws, police violence and unfair trials to punish Sahrawis who advocate peacefully in favour of independence or full self-determination for the disputed Western Sahara," HRW said.
However, it did say repression had eased somewhat in recent years.
The rights group urged Morocco to decriminalise speech or political activity deemed to be affronts to its "territorial integrity" and end impunity for police abuses.
It said Polisario should ensure the Sahrawi refugees are free to challenge its leadership and are allowed to advocate options for Western Sahara other than independence.
HRW said the U.N. Security Council should ensure the U.N. presence in the region included regular human rights monitoring.
"Virtually all U.N. peacekeeping missions around the world include a human rights component and ... this region should be no exception," it said.
Morocco denies abusing the rights of Western Sahara’s inhabitants, insists that trials of independence campaigners are free and fair and says most Sahrawis see themselves as Moroccan.
Morocco’s Communications Minister Khalid Naciri told Reuters: "I think our friends at Human Rights Watch should make an effort to find the deeper truth, which is a lot more complex than what they write."
No country recognises Morocco’s claim over the territory, which is larger than Britain, but it has powerful allies.
France, Spain and the United States have all voiced support for a Moroccan plan to offer limited autonomy for Western Sahara, while denying any partiality in the dispute. (Editing by Alison Williams)