WASHINGTON, May 17 (UPI) -- U.S. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., joined six Moroccan former prisoners of war Tuesday on Capitol Hill and called for the release of 408 Moroccans still held by the Polisario Front in the disputed Western Sahara territory.
The remaining POWs, detained in violation of the Geneva Conventions since a 1991 cease-fire, are now the longest-held prisoners of war anywhere in the world.
"This is a gross violation of international law and a travesty of human rights," said McCain. "Let us hope (the Polisario) can be swayed, not by political pressures or promises, but by what is undeniably just and humane in the eyes of the world community."
McCain said he was following through on repeated requests by the U.S. State Department to secure the release of Moroccan POWs, many who have been held for more than two decades.
"I know all too well that appeals to decency and justice can make a difference in the lives of prisoners," he said.
McCain, who spent 5-1/2 years as a POW after being shot down over North Vietnam in 1967, said he had sent a letter to the Polisario leadership and expressed hope other members of the Senate would "join this call" as well.
Captain Ali Najab, one of the six Moroccan POWs to appear with McCain, described some of the abuses he and others endured during captivity. He said prisoners were regularly tortured, starved, forced into "slave labor" and even giving their own blood to enemy captors.
"We are not here to talk about politics," Najab, a POW for 25 years, said. "We are ordinary people who survived an extraordinary ordeal and hold a responsibility on behalf of our brothers in captivity ... victims of ongoing and outrageous violations of international human rights."
He noted most people tend to think of POWs as "young men in their early 20s," then turned to the other prisoners who stood behind him saying, "these men here who were recently freed are in their 50s."
Reports of abuse have been corroborated by Amnesty International, the International Committee of the Red Cross and the U.N. Security Council, who have all formally demanded the liberation of POWs in compliance with the Geneva Conventions.
Despite international pressure, however, conditions have yet to improve.
"The POWs had to sleep inside containers, or in trenches they had to dig," said an April 2003 report by Paris-based rights group France Libertes.
The report gathered "many testimonies on torture and summary executions," citing instances where POWs were burned alive, electrocuted, beaten to death and castrated.
One inmate who refused to perform forced labor was punished by being locked in a 1 meter by 1 meter "tin trunk from which he could only get out one hour a day," the report said. The man was later killed.
Article three of the Geneva Conventions stipulates "persons taking no active part in the hostilities, including members of armed forces who have laid down their arms ... shall in all circumstances be treated humanely."
Fighting between Morocco and the Algerian-backed Polisario Front officially ended in 1991, when both sides agreed to return POWs under a U.N.-brokered cease-fire.
The Polisario Front represents the Sahrawi tribe, nomadic Saharans who claim sovereignty over the Western Sahara region that spans southwestern Morocco and western Algeria.
The International Court of Justice rejected territorial claims made by Morocco and Mauritania in 1975, recognizing the Sahrawis' right to self-determination. But Morocco pushed ahead with a military advance later that year, partitioning the region with Mauritania.
Polisario declared the Saharan Arab Democratic Republic soon afterward, electing Mohamed Abdelaziz as secretary-general. A guerilla war ensued until 1991, when the United Nations intervened for the first of many times.
A 2003 U.N. compromise resolution proposed Western Sahara become a semi-autonomous region of Morocco for a transitional period of five years before holding a referendum. The process remains deadlocked.
Meanwhile, the U.N. Security Council issued its fourth resolution last month "urging the Polisario Front to release without delay all remaining prisoners of war."
To date, the front has released nearly 903 Moroccan POWs, according to the Libertes report.
Les Jackson, executive director of American Ex-Prisoners of War, which represents 27,000 former U.S. POWs and family members, echoed McCain's call for the Polisario leadership to "conform to the compact among nations" and free left over Moroccan prisoners.
"Therein, lies a bond between ex-POWs that exists whether we're Moroccans or Marylanders ... veterans of a conflict in a Vietnamese jungle, or in the Sahara desert," he said. "The POW cause ... (is) about human rights."
When asked what kind of leverage the United States had against the Polisario, McCain responded that raising awareness at the international level and in Washington corridors was the best means of facilitating the release of POWs.
"We don't have a lot of influence over the Polisario," McCain conceded. "All we can do is marshal public opinion in the international community."