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Western Sahara Activist Sent Back to Canary Islands

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Human rights officials say Morocco has expelled one of the leading independence campaigners for the disputed territory of Western Sahara. Morocco's Foreign Ministry says the activist voluntarily renounced her Moroccan citizenship.

Aminatou Haidar returned to Morocco last week from a trip abroad that included her winning the 2009 Civil Courage Prize in New York.

Moroccan authorities say she refused to comply with "normal airport formalities" and, in the presence of family members and a public prosecutor, signed a statement voluntarily giving up her Moroccan citizenship.

Jim Loughran heads communications for the Front Line group which campaigns to protect human rights defenders. He says that is a rather disingenuous explanation of what happened.

"She arrived, and they asked her to fill-in a registration form in which she was asked to put down 'citizenship.' Because she travels on a Moroccan passport, they insisted that she would acknowledge her citizenship as Moroccan, which she refused to do because she felt that was recognition of Morocco's occupation of Western Sahara," he said.

Haidar won the 2008 Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award and heads the Collective of Saharawi Human Rights Defenders as one of the foremost campaigners for self-determination in the disputed territory of Western Sahara.

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The coastal region between Morocco, Mauritania, and Algeria was claimed by Morocco shortly after the end of Spanish colonialism in 1975. But ethnic Saharawi in the POLISARIO movement fought for independence. A 1991 ceasefire ended the war but has not resolved Western Sahara's status.

Moroccan Foreign Minister Fassi Fihri told the state-run news agency that Haidar was recruited by Algeria to threaten Morocco's territorial integrity under what he calls "the false pretext of defending human rights" by taking advantage of "the consolidation of freedoms in Morocco."

The foreign minister says this "negative strategy and propaganda only aims at fueling tension" to counteract what he said is "significant headway" in resolving the issue through United Nations mediation.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton reaffirmed the Obama administration's support for mediation during talks with Foreign Minister Fihri last month, allaying Moroccan concerns that the new government in Washington might be more sympathetic to a referendum on self-determination in Western Sahara.

Morocco is offering limited self rule. POLISARIO is holding out for a referendum that includes complete independence as one of the options.

Front Line's Jim Loughran says Haidar's expulsion follows a month-long crackdown on Western Sahara campaigners.

Seven Moroccan human rights activists are facing charges of high treason before a military tribunal for visiting POLISARIO refugee camps in Algeria. Morocco expelled a Swedish diplomat for giving POLISARIO a government document about Western Sahara.

Loughran says Haidar's case is clearly meant to send a message to other human rights campaigners.

"Aminatou Haidar is a public figure. She is well known. And to a certain extent, she is protected by that reputation," he said. "But the ordinary campaigners, the ordinary Saharawi people, the young people in the streets, they are not protected by the international media. So it is a clever way of sending out a strong message," he said.

Haidar was sent back to the Spanish-ruled Canary Islands without her Moroccan passport so she has not left the airport and is now on a hunger strike.