Western Sahara Activist in Third Week of Hunger Strike

Aminatou Haidar tried returning to Western Sahara last month after winning a prize for her peaceful resistance to Moroccan rule.

Associates of a leading campaigner for independence in Western Sahara say she is in the third week of a hunger strike after being expelled by Morocco. 

Aminatou Haidar tried returning to the disputed territory of Western Sahara last month after winning the 2009 Civil Courage Prize for her peaceful resistance to Moroccan rule.

But Moroccan authorities denied her entry because she refused to declare Moroccan citizenship on her immigration form.  Though Haidar was traveling on a Moroccan passport, she does not consider herself a Moroccan citizen because she believes that would recognize Rabat's occupation of Western Sahara.

So she was sent to the Spanish-ruled Canary Islands where she has been sleeping at the airport.

"A lay-over at the airport is tiring.  Imagine spending your days there," says Marselha Goncalves-Margerin, who spent two nights this week sleeping with Haidar on mattresses next to vending machines near the airport's bus parking.

"In the morning, she is taken back to the main lounge and she stays there in the main lounge on a mattress on top of a rug," Goncalves-Margerin explained.

Goncalves-Margerin is advocacy director for the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice & Human Rights, which named Haidar its 2008 Human Rights Laureate.  She says Haidar is in the 17th day of a hunger strike and her health is deteriorating.

"She is getting weak everyday.  She is having trouble with sleeping now and stomach pain.  And it is very tiring per se just to be at an airport like that," she said.

The Moroccan counsel in the Canary Islands says all Haidar has to do to leave the airport and return to Western Sahara is declare her Moroccan citizenship.

Following her expulsion, Moroccan Foreign Minister Fassi Fihri said Haidar was recruited by Algeria to threaten Morocco's territorial integrity under what he calls "the false pretext of defending human rights."

Morocco took control of the coastal region shortly after the end of Spanish colonialism in 1975.

But ethnic Saharawi in the Polisario movement fought for Western Sahara independence.  And while a 1991 cease-fire ended the war, it has not resolved Western Sahara's status.

Haidar's expulsion has drawn the Spanish government further into the conflict.  Foreign Ministry officials offered her a Spanish passport. Goncalves-Margerin was at that meeting and says Haidar politely refused, saying citizenship is a right, not something to be given.

"It i s not for me or you or any authorities to tell her she is better off in Spain than in a jail in Western Sahara.  I know it is very hard for us humans to understand that, but that is how she feels.  By giving her a Spanish nationality, Spain is doing a favor to Morocco because Morocco does not want her around," said Goncalves-Margerin.

Moroccan Foreign Minister Fihri says what he calls Haidar's "propaganda only aims at fueling tension" to block resolution of the conflict through U.N. mediation.

But U.N. efforts have made little headway, with Morocco offering limited self rule and  Polisario holding out for a referendum that includes the option of complete independence.  

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