RABAT, Morocco — Travelers passing through a small Canary Islands airport this week may have met a slight woman in a pink headscarf who says she’s starving herself to death.
Her name is Aminatou Haidar. The 42-year-old activist was expelled from Morocco on Nov. 13, on her way home from winning a prestigious international human rights award in New York City.
The Moroccan government says Haidar — who advocates independence for Morocco’s disputed Western Sahara territory — made a spectacle of renouncing her Moroccan citizenship upon arriving home. Speaking by phone from the island of Lanzarote, Haidar insisted this isn’t so. She said she’s been illegally deported and vowed to fast until Morocco lets her return, or “until death.”
At first, the row might seem like another grim chapter in one of Africa’s longest-running territorial feuds. But longtime Morocco observers say Haidar’s expulsion underscores a trend of rising repression as the Moroccan government has increasingly cracked down on dissidents and journalists in the last six months.
Even as U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spent her recent visit here praising Morocco’s democratic gains, some human rights groups are saying it’s time to rethink Morocco’s reputation as the grand exception among repressive Arab states.
“Beyond the facade of openness there are serious problems,” said Abdeslam Maghraoui, a political scientist and Morocco specialist at Duke University. “During the past six months we’ve seen a real deterioration.”
In recent weeks, police in the disputed Western Sahara region have begun breaking up interviews between foreign journalists and activists who want a referendum on independence.
This follows a series of moves punishing the press for publishing stories Moroccan authorities found objectionable. “There has been an escalation and it’s on an unprecedented scale,” said Ahmed Ben Chemsi, the editor of the Moroccan newsweekly Tel Quel. “It’s happening to too many newspapers at the same time to think that it’s a coincidence.”
In October, newspaper publisher Driss Chahtane, of the Arabic-language newspaper Al-Michaal, was handed a year-long prison sentence for running an article about the king’s health. The two journalists who wrote the piece, Rachid Mahamid and Mustapha Hayrane, were fined and given sentences of three months each.
For publishing an item on the same bit of news — an unnamed medical source claimed the king was recovering from a stomach virus — Ali Anouzla, the editor of the daily Al-Jarida Al-Oula, received a one-year suspended jail sentence.
In September, authorities closed down another Arabic-language paper, Akhbar al-Youm, for publishing a cartoon depicting the king’s cousin.
In August, authorities seized and destroyed the entire print run of the country’s premier news magazine, Tel Quel, for daring to publish results of a survey on the king’s popularity. In that apparently controversial poll, a whopping 91 percent of Moroccans said they approved of the king.
Morocco’s communication minister Khalid Naciri rejected any notion the government has adopted a newly combative attitude toward the press, saying the recent prosecutions targeted a small minority who’d broken laws requiring journalists to show “due respect” for royalty.
“What is forbidden here is what is forbidden in all democratic countries — insults, defamation and lies,” Naciri said. “The reality is that there are hundreds of newspapers in Morocco that express themselves freely.”
International observers disagree.
“There is no doubt that this year has been among the worst periods for independent media in Morocco,” said Mohamed Abdel Dayem, the Middle East and North Africa coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists in New York City. Dayem says the press crackdowns reflect the government’s increasing disregard for human rights. “Morocco at a certain point of time was on a very promising trajectory,” he said. “But I think they’ve failed to follow through on those reforms.”
Yet it was just those reforms that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton hailed without reservation during her visit to Morocco last month, citing progress Morocco has made on democracy and human rights in the decade since King Mohammed VI assumed the throne.
“The United States has watched with great admiration the progress that Morocco has achieved under his leadership,” Clinton said during a Nov. 2 appearance, in which she reaffirmed that America backs Morocco on Western Sahara.
The closest Clinton came to addressing the recent crackdown was saying she wanted “to see an emphasis on freedom of the press and freedom of expression throughout the region in every country” during a Nov. 3 meeting, in response to a direct question about press freedom in Morocco.
Days after Clinton left, the king took a hard line against opposition voices, singling out independence activists in Western Sahara.
“One is either a patriot or a traitor," he said in a Nov. 6 speech celebrating the territory's 1975 annexation. "One cannot enjoy the rights and privileges of citizenship, only to abuse them and conspire with the enemies of the homeland."
At least some here see a connection between Clinton’s public support and the king’s ultimatum. “There has to be a relationship,” Ben Shemsi said. “Clinton supported Morocco strongly and I think he feels more emboldened.”
An official with Morocco’s foreign ministry dismissed this idea as “pure speculation of press.” The official, who asked for anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly about Western Sahara issues, instead characterized the move against Haidar and other activists as “a decision to say enough is enough.”
A week after the king’s speech, airport police in Laayoune, Western Sahara’s main city, detained Haidar on her way home. The activist said she had left the nationality line blank on her entry documents, and wrote “Western Sahara” in the address section. Though she said she has been filling out the paperwork the same way for years, this time the police objected. She said authorities confiscated her passport, interrogated her for 24 hours, then ordered her expelled.
Moroccan officials dispute this account, saying Haidar renounced and willingly signed away her citizenship in the presence of family members and a government prosecutor. In a statement released Monday, Morocco’s foreign minister, Taib Fassi Fihri, characterized Haidar’s hunger strike as a bid to disrupt upcoming peace talks between Morocco and the Polisario Front, an independence movement representing about 125,000 displaced Western Sahara residents living in Algerian refugee camps.
“Aminatou Haidar is not a human rights activist, but a Polisario agent,” the statement said.
Although Haidar spoke with GlobalPost a few days into the strike, her supporters at Arrecife airport said on Tuesday she is no longer able to give interviews.
Haidar has subsisted on nothing but sugar water for the past three weeks and renounced medical care on Monday evening, said Man Chagaf, a Saharawi supporter who has been with Haidar since the hunger strike began. Chagaf described her condition on Tuesday as “stable but quite weak.”
Moroccan officials last week said Haidar could be issued a new passport if she formally apologizes to the government. But the mother of two continues to court death, staunchly maintaining she has nothing to be sorry about.