Commentary

Opinion: Silenced in the Sahara

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WASHINGTON — Leading Saharawi human rights activist Aminatou Haidar is on a hunger strike after being detained by Moroccan authorities and flown to the Canary Islands.

Haidar was arrested in the El Aaiun airport of the Moroccan-controlled Western Sahara on Nov. 13. Within 48 hours, she was flown to the Canary Island of Lanzarote (Spain), where she immediately began a hunger strike to protest her treatment by Moroccan and Spanish officials.

The exact details of the expulsion are disputed. According to an initial report by the royally-mandated Moroccan Arab Press Agency, Haidar was arrested by security forces for “failing to abide by police formalities.” Later reports added that she voluntarily renounced her Moroccan identity, handed over her passport and flew to the Canary Islands.

Haidar — who spent seven months in the infamous “Black Prison” of El Aaiun in 2006 after participating in an independence demonstration — has been denied re-entry to the Western Sahara, where her two children live, on the pretense that she no longer has a travel document.

Haidar, however, tells a different story. According to her account, upon arriving in El Aaiun, she refused to cite her identity as “Moroccan” on the customs form required to enter the territory. She was in possession of a Moroccan passport and has used the document to travel abroad. The Western Sahara is not recognized as Moroccan territory by any international organization or country, besides the Kingdom itself.

Haidar was then detained, stripped of her passport, forced to board a plane against her will, and flown out of the country. In the Lanzarote airport, she began a hunger strike when she was informed that the Spanish government would not let her leave the island. She was removed from the airport twice by the Spanish Civil Guard, but re-entered both times. Her hunger strike is complicating a stomach condition.

“I am seriously anxious about the life of Aminatou,” said Malainin Lakhal, the director of the Saharawi Journalists and Writers Union (UPES), in an email. “Doctors have just found that she has an ulcer in her stomach. She is very weak because she has been alert since Friday and went through a 24-hour interrogation and struggle against the Moroccan police.”

Haidar — often referred to as “the Saharawi Gandhi” — has been awarded several prominent human and civil rights prizes, including the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award and the Train Foundation’s Civil Courage Prize. She was returning from her trip to New York to accept the latter when she was detained.

Haidar is one of Western Sahara's most prominent human rights defenders because she led campaigns for a referendum to determine Western Sahara's relationship to Morocco, which has occupied the territory since 1975 despite the International Court of Justice ruling denying its claims to sovereignty in the region. She has worked through non-violent means to organize peaceful demonstrations in support of the people of Western Sahara's right to self-determination and to denounce human rights abuses by the Moroccan government.

Haidar's peaceful efforts have been met with increased police aggression and brutality. In 1987, at the age of 21, she was one of 700 peaceful protesters arrested for participating in a rally in support of a referendum. Later she was "disappeared" without charge or trial and held in secret detention centers for four years, where she and 17 other Saharawi women were tortured. In 2005, the Moroccan police detained and beat her after another peaceful demonstration. She was released after seven months, thanks to international pressure from groups like Amnesty International and the European Parliament.

Since then Haidar has traveled the globe to expose the Moroccan military's heavy-handed approach and to advocate for the Saharawi people's right to self determination. Her efforts helped change the Moroccan government's violent tactics for dispersing pro-independence peaceful demonstrations. Unfortunately, the torture and harassment of Saharawi human rights defenders continues behind closed doors.

Haidar’s is the latest of several similar arrests of Saharawi activists by Moroccan security forces. In August, a group of both Moroccan and Saharawi students were prevented from travelling to England to participate in a workshop organized by the British NGO "Talk Together," despite having all the necessary visas. The Saharawi participants were allegedly kidnapped, threatened and beaten.

On Oct. 8, seven prominent Saharawi human rights activists were detained in the Mohammed V Airport in Casablanca upon returning from a trip to visit their fellow Saharawis, 160,000 of whom live in refugee camps in neighboring Algeria. The seven are now set to face a military tribunal.

According to a recent report by Human Rights Watch, Moroccan police in the cities of the Western Sahara have begun refusing to allow international journalists, lawyers and visitors to enter the homes of known Saharawi activists throughout the territory unless permission is first granted by the local police.

Since King Mohammed VI’s ascension to the throne in 1999, the government has boasted of its progressive civil and human rights reforms. While such efforts may be producing results within the kingdom itself, the rights of free speech and assembly are being brutally repressed among the Saharawis, currently under de facto Moroccan control.

In a recent speech marking the 34th anniversary of the Green March — during which over 300,000 Moroccan settlers were sent into the Western Sahara by King Hassan II to pressure Spain to turn over its Western Saharan colony to the Crown rather than arranging the U.N.-mandated referendum on independence — King Mohammed VI proclaimed, “One cannot enjoy the rights and privileges of citizenship, only to abuse them and conspire with the enemies of the homeland.”

Statements like this are the impetus behind the arrests of Saharawi human rights defenders, who protest the actions committed against their fellow Saharawis. While finger-pointing will do little to help end the 35-year-old conflict, the human rights situation is dangerously degrading in the Western Sahara. A fifth round of U.N.-sponsored negotiations between the Saharawis’ Polisario Front and Rabat is about to begin, but if either side feels it cannot trust the others’ intentions, these negotiations will be as unproductive as the last four.

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