The High Court on Wednesday ordered the Interior Ministry not to expel the 17 individuals who claim to be Sahrawi activists and whose request for political asylum had previously been denied at the application stage by the Spanish Interior Ministry.
In all, 22 people from the disputed Western Sahara territory arrived by boat in Fuerteventura earlier this month, saying they had been expelled in November from the Agdaym Izik protest camp near Laâyoune. They sought asylum on the basis that they had suffered repression at the hands of the Moroccan authorities and are afraid to return.
The government decided to allow five of the 22 to file petitions for asylum - a move that will allow them to remain in Spain, for now - but it has rejected opening cases for the rest.
Just being a Sahrawi is not enough to win asylum, Zapatero stated
"If we go back, they will put us in jail and torture us," says one refugee
The High Court issued the injunction in favor of the 17 that had appealed their case just as authorities were preparing to put them on board a plane in Las Palmas for a midday flight to Morocco. They had been held in an immigrant detention camp in Barranco Seco.
"Notify the government by phone and fax about this latest ruling in order to immediately suspend any physical execution of the expulsions," reads the order issued by the High Court's wing for the judicial review of administrative orders, which is presided by Judge José Luis Sánchez Díaz.
Lawyers for the Spanish Commission for Refugee Assistance (CEAR), who had taken up the Sahrawi case, said that the government's decision to send the alleged refugees back to Morocco violated a clause in asylum legislation, which prohibits the expulsion of people who are appealing the rejection of their requests.
On Wednesday before the court's order came down, Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero told Congress that just because a person is Sahrawi was not enough for the government to automatically grant asylum. He said there wasn't enough evidence to demonstrate that each of these persons were "persecuted individually."
CEAR regional coordinator Juan Carlos Lorenzo told Efe news agency that the High Court's order was "the best measure" to ensure justice.
The 22 Sahrawis arrived by boat to the Canary Island of Fuerteventura on January 5. All of them are thought to have participated in a mass protest against Moroccan control over Western Sahara, which took place in October and caused an international stir after the police forcibly dismantled the Agdaym Izik camp on November 8.
They claim to have been in hiding since, along with other Sahrawis, awaiting their chance to flee by sea. The boat took around 17 hours to reach Fuerteventura, where several of its passengers tried to escape.
The Basque Nationalist Party (PNV) was especially jubilant about the High Court's injunction. It was PNV deputy Josu Erkoreka's who had specifically asked Zapatero about the status of the Sahrawis in Congress on Wednesday.
"One of the things that I had asked Zapatero this morning was to paralyze, to the extent that he could within his powers, the expulsion of the Sahrawis. Now it seems this has occurred which a cause for celebration," Erkoreka told reporters.
In a previous interview with EL PAÍS, two of the Sahrwais, Hamad and Abdalá, said they were too scared to go back.
"We are frightened they will send us back to Morocco," said Hamad, 27, the same age as Abdalá. "We can't go back. We left because there was no alternative. All of the Sahrawis that arrived in our boat were in the Agdaym Izik camp. The police are looking for us. One of those on the boat had a bullet wound in the foot and another a broken hand. They are victims of Moroccan repression."
Aomar Daoudi, 35, was one of the lucky five whose asylum petition was granted by the Spanish government.
"The Moroccan police entered my home in Laâyoune looking for me following the expulsions at the Agdaym Izik camp," Daoudi recalled in another EL PAÍS interview.
"I had escaped from the desert. They broke down the door to my home. They hit my wife with a police club demanding that they tell her where I was. She was beaten so severely she lost the baby that she was carrying. They destroyed everything.
"When I arrived in Laâyoune I went into hiding; some friends took me in. It was like that, day to day, until I realized that they were not going to leave them alone - they would continue to break into their homes unless I left. It was then when I began planning my escape to Spain," Daoudi said.
Like the other four who were granted asylum, the Moroccan police knew Daoudi. He had been keeping watch with the others at Agdaym Izik, including guarding the entry points, before the authorities evicted the estimated 12,000 that had been living in the camp.
"If we go back, they will put us in jail and torture us," says another Sahrawi. The Spanish government still has to decide whether to grant the five asylum, but has agreed to allow them to apply. This means they can stay in Spain until a decision is handed down - a wish the other 17 are still clinging onto.