Spain pressures Morocco over rights activist, reopening colonial wounds

Rights activist Aminatou Haidar, who is pushing for Western Sahara's independence from Morocco, has been on a hunger strike in Spain, prompting Spanish pressure for her to be let back into the country. But some Moroccans see a double standard.

Borja Suarez/REUTERS
Western Sahara independence campaigner Aminatou Haidar attends a news conference as she continues her hunger strike Thursday at Guacimeta airport in Lanzarote in Spain's Canary Islands.

Three weeks after human rights activist Aminatou Haidar was deported upon returning home to the disputed territory of Western Sahara, the stakes are rising in a standoff between Morocco, Spain, and the stateless Haidar, reopening old colonial wounds for Moroccans.

Moroccan authorities blocked Ms. Haidar from returning to her hometown in Western Sahara – considered Moroccan territory by Morocco – when she recorded her nationality as Saharan instead of Moroccan on an entry form. Haidar, who was returning home from receiving a prestigious prize for her work, was sent back to Spain’s Lanzarote airport in the Canary Islands and launched a hunger strike.

“I will return to the Western Sahara dead or alive,” she said yesterday at a press conference at the airport, where she has been camped out drinking only sweetened water for 26 days.

Spanish double standard?

Morocco took over control of the Western Sahara from Spain in 1975, although the Algerian-backed separatist movement Polisario has fought for independence since then.

Spain’s pressure on Morocco to allow Haidar’s return home, perceived here as support for an independent Western Sahara, is rankling Moroccan observers, who say Spain is guilty of a double standard in its attitudes towards separatism and occupation.

Popular Moroccan blogger and online dissident Ibn Kafka posted on his Twitter account: “I remember [a Spaniard] who campaigned for Polisario. ... But this same Spaniard became apoplectic when I brought up Basque separatism.”

Meanwhile, an online editorial in the pro-administration Morocco Board News Service pointed out the irony in “Spanish support for an independent Western Sahara in southern Morocco, while Spain’s military still occupies two Moroccan cities in the North.”

The two Spanish cities of Ceuta and Melilla, situated on the northern coast of Morocco, are considered the last remaining enclaves of Spanish conquest in Africa.

Pressure mounting

In spite of new calls for a resolution from the United Nations, European Parliament, Amnesty International, and others, no compromise has yet been reached on Haidar’s increasingly visible predicament.

On Wednesday, Mohamed Abdel Aziz, secretary general of Western Sahara independence movement Polisario, called upon France to intervene, adding that Haidar “must not be allowed to die slowly upon European territory.”

“We hope a solution will be found rapidly,” said a spokesman for the French foreign ministry.

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