Why Morocco welcomed human rights activist Aminatou Haidar home by arresting her

Human rights activist Aminatou Haidar, dubbed 'Gandhi' for her efforts to win Western Sahara's independence, launched a hunger strike after Morocco deported her this weekend.

Borja Suarez/Reuters
Prominent Western Sahara independence campaigner Aminatou Haidar sits while on a hunger strike at the Guacimeta airport, on Spain's Canary island of Lanzarote, Tuesday.
Borja Suarez/Reuters
Aminatou Haidar.

Fresh off winning a prestigious international human rights award in New York, activist Aminatou Haidar received no warm welcome when she returned to Morocco last Friday.

Instead, she was arrested and deported by Moroccan officials.

Her crime? Leaving the citizenship line blank on her customs form, and writing Western Sahara – the disputed Moroccan territory where she lives – on the address line.

On Monday, Ms. Haidar declared a hunger strike and said she'll carry out her fast "to the death" if authorities continue to bar her return home. It's one of many risks she has taken in a 20-year campaign to win independence for the people of Western Sahara, a region Morocco annexed in 1975.

Haidar's perseverance was highlighted by the Train Foundation on Oct. 21, when it awarded her the Civil Courage Prize in New York. Among other trials, the foundation cited Haidar's 1987 arrest, disappearance, and subsequent four-year prison sentence, along with another seven-month detention in 2005.

After receiving the award, whose previous winners include the late Russian investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya, Haidar told reporters she still faced a constant risk of arrest in Morocco. When Haidar came home to the Western Saharan city of Laayoune, police proved her right.

Haidar's arrest

Speaking by phone from the Spanish-controlled Canary Islands airport to which she was deported, Haidar says that upon her arrival in Laayoune, she handed in her customs forms, putting "Western Sahara" in the address section.

"I've always done it in the same way," says Haidar.

But for the first time, Haidar says, police took issue with the address. Pointing "Western Sahara," Haidar says the officer told her, "This place doesn't exist." Authorities then confiscated her Moroccan passport, she says, and after 24 hours of police questioning, a prosecutor ordered her expulsion. When she got on the plane, Haidar says, "They didn't even tell me where I was going."

Morocco's Foreign Minister Fassi Fihri said Haidar was deported after renouncing and willingly signing away her Moroccan citizenship.

"Members of Aminatou Haidar's family talked to her and were present when she signed her statements in the presence of the public prosecutor, wherein she gave up her Moroccan citizenship," Fihri said in a statement.

Haidar called this nonsense and criticized the Spanish government for cooperating with what she called Morocco's "illegal expulsion." She said she stopped eating at 12 a.m. Sunday, in a bid to spur Spain to push for her return.

An official with Spain's Foreign Ministry who declined to be named told the Monitor that officials are doing what they can to resolve the situation, but in the meantime Haidar has a valid Spanish residency card and can move about freely.

Moroccan king vs. 'Gandhi'

Haidar is often billed as the "Gandhi" of human rights campaigners in Western Sahara for her work as an outspoken advocate of self-determination for the Saharawi, as residents of a Great Britain-sized swath of desert are known.

While the borders of the resource-rich region remain in dispute, Morocco claims the territory as its own. Half its original population now lives in Algerian refugee camps. Activists as well as the Polisario Front, an Algerian-backed guerrilla group representing the 125,000 displaced people, want a referendum on independence.

In her visit to Marrakesh this month, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton backed Morocco's proposal to keep hold of the territory while granting it limited autonomy – a solution the Polisario rejects.

Days after the Clinton visit, however, Moroccan King Mohammed VI took a hard and very public line against Saharawi activism.

"One is either a patriot or a traitor," he said in a Nov. 6 speech commemorating the territory's annexation. "One cannot enjoy the rights and privileges of citizenship, only to abuse them and conspire with the enemies of the homeland."

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