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A hunger for justice

New Internationalist has long been following developments in Western Sahara and calling for justice for its people. Journalist and campaigner Stefan Simanowitz has just sent this update regarding Aminatou Haider, who is on a hunger strike in the Canary Islands to draw attention to the Western Saharawis’ plight. But, he asks, will the Moroccans cede to international pressure?

Holiday-makers arriving in Lanzarote airport look on with curiosity at the frail woman lying in a nest of blankets on the floor airport terminal. Few of them are aware that they are looking at the world-renowned human rights activist and Nobel Peace Prize nominee Amainatou Haidar, now in the third week of a hunger strike. Haidar, known has the ‘African Gandhi’, was deported from her home in Moroccan-controlled Western Sahara on 14 November after refusing to put down her nationality as Moroccan on the arrival form when returning from a trip abroad. The police interrogated her, confiscated her passport and expelled her to the Canary Islands, where she has been on hunger strike in the airport ever since. She has declined an offer by Spain to grant her refugee status, accusing the Spainish of complicity in her deportation arguing that she should not have been allowed to travel without a passport. 

According to Dr Alberto Guzman, director of Lanzorote provincial health services who has been at her side, Haidar’s condition is now ‘critical’. She is unable to walk and her poor state of health has been exacerbated by a perforated ulcer and damage caused by a 45-day hunger strike she carried out some years ago. 

Haidar’s deportation has been condemned by human rights organizations including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, and on 27 November, US State Department spokesman Ian Kelly issued a statement stating that ‘[t]he United States remains concerned about the health and well-being of Saharawi activist Aminatou Haidar, recipient of the 2008 Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award and the Train Foundation’s 2009 Civil Courage Prize. We urge a speedy determination of her legal status and full respect for due process and human rights.’

She has also had messages of support from around the world, including from Nobel Literature Laureate Jose Saramago, Noble Peace Prize Laureate President Ramos-Horta and film director Pedro Almodovar. Actor Javier Bardem wrote to her, saying ‘I’m sorry that because of work commitments overseas I cannot be there in Lanzarote but my thoughts are with you.’ Haidar has also had a number of high-profile visitors, including Spanish actor Guilliamo Toledo, who has slept beside her on the airport floor for the past 10 days. A delegation from the Robert Kennedy Foundation arrived in the Canary Islands at the weekend and are scheduled to stay with Haidar for a number of days. Meanwhile, in occupied Western Sahara over 200 women have been on hunger strike in solidarity with Haidar for over a week. 

Sounding weak but defiant, Haidar has vowed to continue her hunger strike and stated that her action should not be seen as an isolated act of defiance of a single indiviudal but part of the struggle of the entire Saharawi people. ‘It is true that this hunger strike is about the individual right of one person to return to her home and her family,’ she said. ‘But it also about the collective right denied to the Saharawi people to live freely in their native land.’
This lastest incident comes at a time of heightened tensions in the so-called occupied territories. Since the start of October, human rights groups in Western Sahara have documented a steep rise in instances of violence, arrest and torture of Saharawi activists, including the detention of seven prominent human rights defenders currently awaiting sentence from a military court in Rabat. 

This escalation of repression and the expulsion of Aminatou Haidar follow the appointment of Christopher Ross as the new UN Special Envoy to Western Sahara and recent hopes that, with support from the Obama Saharawi overnment, a breakthrough to the diplomatic stalemate might finally be found. Indeed, some analysts believe that the crackdown is an attempt by the Moroccan authorities to scupper long-awaited UN-sponsored negotiations before they even start, and could backfire on Morocco. By perpetrating violence and repression against the very people they have committed themselves to negotiate with, Morocco could be seen as not playing a straight bat and, as a result, come under greater international diplomatic and political pressure. 

Moroccan claims of sovereignty over Western Sahara are not recognized by a single nation and have been dismissed by the International Court of Justice. Over 100 UN resolutions have been passed calling for a referendum on self-determination for the Saharawi people, but these have been ignored. With President Obama committed to using negotiations to resolve the conflict in the Western Sahara, it is unlikely that any attempts to derail the talks by arresting human rights defenders and deporting human activists such as Ms Haidar will be looked on kindly.

As she enters her third week of hunger strike, Aminatou Haidar, a small woman with an indomitable spirit, has drawn the world’s attention to the forgotten plight of her people. Having devoted over two decades of her life fighting for a peaceful end to Morocco’s 34-year unlawful occupation of Western Sahara, the 42-year-old mother of two is not afraid to die for her country. In 1987, she was ‘disappeared’ and tortured for more than three years for her pro-independence activities, and in 2005 she spent seven months in the so-called ‘black prison‘ of Laayoune. Now, as her physical strength seeps away, her supporters around the world can only watch on, hoping that enough international pressure can be brought to bear to persuade Morocco to allow Haidar to return to her home and children before it is too late. 

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