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    Western Sahara Activist Returns Home After Month-Long Expulsion

    A leading campaigner for independence for Western Sahara has returned home after being expelled for refusing to declare Moroccan citizenship. The move ends what supporters say was a 32-day hunger strike.

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    Aminatou Haidar returned home to Western Sahara early Friday more than a month after her expulsion created a diplomatic stand-off between Morocco and Spain.

    Moroccan authorities seized her passport November 16  when she refused to declare Moroccan citizenship after returning from New York where she won the 2009 Civil Courage Prize.

    Though she was traveling on a Moroccan passport, Haidar said declaring Moroccan citizenship would recognize what she considers Morocco's occupation of Western Sahara.

    Expelled to the Spanish-ruled Canary Islands, Haidar was denied entry because she did not have a passport and lived at the airport where supporters say she drank only sugared water on a hunger strike that lasted 32 days.

    Jim Loughran heads communications for the Front Line group which campaigns to protect human rights defenders.

    "Aminatou Haidar has been deliberately targeted because of her peaceful human rights work and because she was becoming increasingly well-known at the international level. And for that reason, the Moroccans decided to take a particularly hard line. So it looks as though  common sense and goodwill have prevailed and the influence of Spain and the United States has produced a positive outcome," said Loughran.

    The details of the deal allowing her return are not immediately clear but do not appear to include her declaring Moroccan citizenship.

    Morocco's Foreign Ministry says Haidar completing the usual customs and police formalities in the city of Laayoune. The ministry says her return followed repeated calls made by friendly countries to find a humanitarian solution to the situation she voluntarily put herself in.

    U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton says she was pleased to hear of Morocco's decision to re-admit Haidar on humanitarian grounds. In a written statement, Clinton said the gesture "is reflective of the true spirit and generosity of the Moroccan government and people, and underscores the urgency of finding a permanent solution to the Western Sahara conflict."

    Morocco claimed the coastal strip shortly after Spanish colonialists withdrew in 1975. But ethnic Saharawi in the Algerian-backed Polisario movement fought against Moroccan control. And while a 1991 cease-fire ended the war, it has not resolved Western Sahara's status.

    Haidar has been a leading campaigner for independence as head of the Collective of Saharawi Human Rights Defenders. Loughran says her standing as the 2008 recipient of the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award brought more attention to the issue.

    "That gives her a profile that can help to protect her. But there are many other people who are in much more vulnerable positions. The legal system in Western Sahara continues to target anyone who speaks out either on the right to autonomy or the right to independence. People are hauled up on charges of insulting the state, undermining the authority of the state. That's the day-to-day reality for the Saharawi people in Western Sahara," he said.

    During her hunger strike, Morocco's government denounced Haidar as an agent of Algeria. In its statement on her return, the Foreign Ministry said Morocco remains committed to respecting human rights but reaffirms that it will not tolerate any violation of the law "especially when perpetrators conspire with the enemies of the Kingdom against the national interests."

    Secretary of State Clinton joined UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in calling for continued UN mediation on Western Sahara. Those talks 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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