Western Sahara: Fears grow for hunger strike Nobel nominee
They call Aminatou Haidar the Gandhi of the Western Sahara. Haidar went on hunger strike 12 days ago after being expelled from her home and having her passport taken away by Morocco, which annexed the former Spanish colony in 1976. Her alleged crime was, that on returning from New York after picking up the Train Foundation civil courage award, she refused to fill in the citizenship line on her customs form and wrote "Western Sahara" on the address line.
Moroccan officials told her that the disputed Western Sahara, where she and some 100,000 fellow Sahrawis live, does not exist, claiming it is part of Morocco. After her passport was taken away, she was placed on a plane to Spain.
Haidar's health continued to deteriorate yesterday amid growing worldwide concern, with Barack Obama's administration and Amnesty International both expressing concern. "She is a very strong, very special woman, but she is weak because she has not eaten for 12 days," explained Jordi Ferrer, a Spanish friend and documentary film-maker who was with her yesterday. "She has an ulcer and the doctors say things will get a lot worse if she carries on next week."
Haidar, a former Nobel peace prize nominee, was held for four years without charge in secret Moroccan jails, where she said she was tortured. She was also beaten by police for taking part in peaceful pro-independence demonstrations.
Morocco's ambassador in Spain, Omar Azziman, accused Haidar of behaving like a militant from Polisario, the Sahrawi rebel movement seeking independence for Western Sahara. "Why should the Moroccan government seek a solution for a woman who denies that she is Moroccan?" he asked.
But her hunger strike has won support from Spanish celebrities such as film director Pedro Almodóvar, Nobel laureate José Saramago and from the powerful Kennedy family in the United States. Today, Almodóvar and hundreds of Spanish artists, intellectuals and leftwing politicians are due to hold a protest meeting in Madrid.
Pressure is also, increasingly, coming from Washington. "The United States remains concerned about the health and wellbeing of Sahrawi activist Aminatou Haidar," state department spokesman Ian Kelly said.
"We urge a speedy determination of her legal status and full respect for due process and human rights."
John Train, the wealthy patron of the civil courage prize that Haidar was awarded in New York, said: "She is one of many brave people all around the world who resist intimidation, ostracism and pressure, and risk their lives, to promote freedom and justice."
Yesterday, the slight, bespectacled 42-year-old was lying on a carpet and some cushions in the airport check-in hall. She has trouble standing up and sometimes uses a wheelchair or stretcher bed. Airlines have refused to carry her to a disputed territory without a passport. She said her hunger strike was a protest against her expulsion and Spain's decision to let her in without a passport – which she claimed broke both Spanish and international law. She said the airline that took her to Lanzarote should have been told to take her straight home. As a result, she was a prisoner in Spain. "I am a human rights activist who only protests by peaceful means," she said yesterday. "Either the Spanish government finds a way to get me home, or I will carry on until I die.
"I never thought the Spanish government would play such a dirty role. I'll never accept asylum. My homeland is the Western Sahara, even though it is illegally occupied by Morocco. That is where my fight is." Spain's state-run airports authority has tried to evict her, claiming she is a public nuisance.
"They have violated their own internal laws by accepting her here without a passport," said Marselha Gonçalves Margerin, advocacy director at the Washington-based Robert F Kennedy Centre, who was in Lanzarote yesterday. "Just as they allowed her to get in, so they should now allow her to get back."
Deputy Spanish prime minister María Teresa Fernández de la Vega said Spain supported self-determination in the Western Sahara, but begged Haidar to "reconsider" her protest.
She promised that Haidar, who turned down an offer of political asylum, could soon "travel freely and be reunited with her family".