It all started with a press release from the little-known Together Foundation that claimed slaves are held in the Sahrawi refugee camps in Algeria. The release was based on allegations put forward by two Australian filmmakers.
The news surprised Western Sahara watchers, and not just because of the serious nature of its charges. But who was really behind the unknown US-based Together Foundation?
“When I read the release, I was surprised because I had never heard of them, and neither had anyone I know who follows Western Sahara,” US blogger Will Sommer (photo) said.
After a series of posts on his blog One Hump or Two?, Summer not only revealed the organization’s dubious character, but has now forced its entire board of advisors to resign.
The day after the Together Foundation’s press release came out, Sommer called the listed PR contact, Philippe Elghouayel, also the Foundation’s president. According to Sommer, Elghouayel was dismissive on the phone, and kept demanding to know where Sommer was calling from. He gave Sommer the Foundation’s website, which listed the Foundation’s members and its board of advisors.
The next day, Sommer wrote a post on his blog about the Foundation and its press release. He wasn’t able to find out much about the Foundation, which according to its website started in 2005. Then, he listed the board of advisors, a three member group that included the director of the Maghreb Center, a Washington-based North African think tank. Other than that, though, little was known about the board of advisors.
Sommer did, however, find more information about Elghouayel, the Foundation’s president. He was formerly in charge of the United Nation Development Program’s Russian office, but resigned under a fraud investigation. Later on, Western Sahara blogger Alle at Western Sahara Info found a Russian UN document saying Elghouayel briefly was the head of MINURSO.
The day after Sommer published his post, another Western Sahara blogger, Chasli at Western Sahara Endgame, noticed that two members of the board of advisors —Emily Toll and Steve Pershing— had disappeared from the website. Elghouayel insisted their resignations had nothing to do with the Foundation’s recent notoriety.
A couple of hours later Sommer talked on the phone with another member, who claimed he had never been asked to be on their board of advisors. He soon disappeared from the website as well, meaning the board of advisors was no more.
“A couple of days later Philippe Elghouayel called me in a far different tone than when we spoke last”, Sommer said. Elghouayel said the board of advisors had been “scared off” by the blog posts.
The Foundation even changed its stance, with Elghouayel saying he had doubts about the Australian filmmakers’ slavery claims. According to the Together Foundation’s website, they’re now working with the Polisario Front to send an investigative team to the refugee camps in Algeria.
Some questions still remain unanswered, according to Sommer.
“There’s a Russian connection that I can’t figure out,” Sommer said. “First, Elghouayel worked at the Russian UNDP office. Secondly, Temkin, the Foundation’s webdesigner, runs a company that prepares products for export to Russia. And thirdly, a Russian journalist named Ilia Baranikas has written articles using Together Foundation’s talking points.”
The bigger question, though, is who backed the Together Foundation. Robert Holley, the director of the Moroccan lobbying group the Moroccan-American Center for Policy, denied a connection with the group.
“I’m not sure it was backed by the Moroccan government or Moroccan agents,” Sommer said. “I guess they’re more competent than this. Either way, I think it’s a victory both for the budding Western Sahara blogging scene and for anyone who’s interested in accurate information about Western Sahara.”
Since 1975, three quarters of the territory of Western Sahara has been occupied by Morocco. A majority of the population is still living in refugee camps in Algeria. Those who remained in their homeland are subjected to serious harassment from the Moroccan occupiers. For more than 40 years the Sahrawis have been waiting for the fullfilment of their legitimate right to self-determination.
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