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ACTION ALERT: Saharan Peace Hero Fasts to Return to her West Saharan Home

November 30, 2009
Cindy Cooper / On the Issues Magazine & Giles Tremlett / The Observer & The Robert F. Kennedy Center

Aminatou Haidar, known as the "Gandhi" of the Western Sahara for her advocacy for the human rights of her people, was stopped from returning home after returning from New York where she received an award for her nonviolent advocacy. On November 15, Haider began a hunger strike on a mat in the airport. Thousands of supporters (including filmmaker Pedro Almodóvar) have flocked to the airport to demanding justice for Aminatou Haidar.


• Sign the Petition to Support Aminatou Haidar

In Peril: North African Freedom Fighter On Hunger Strike
Cindy Cooper / On the Issues Magazine

LANZAROTE , Canary Islands (November 20, 2009) — Aminatou Haidar, known as the "Gandhi" of the Western Sahara for her advocacy for the human rights of her people, sat on a mattress provided by the Red Cross in the Lanzarote airport in the Spanish territory of the Canary Islands. She declared a hunger strike to the death on November 15 and only takes sugar and water.

Hundreds of people gathered outside the airport to express support for the tall woman with a simple headscarf and glasses. Within days, prominent Spanish actors made their way inside the terminal to be by her side and Spaniards in Madrid held a protest rally, said Mouloud Said, the Washington DC-based Ambassador at Large for the Western Sahara, in an interview. The Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice & Human Rights in Washington DC, which honored Haidar in 2008, declared the situation "urgent" and called upon the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights to intervene.

Haidar, a 42-year old mother of two, has become the fearless voice for the civil and human rights of the Sahrawis, as the people of the Western Sahara are known. Haidar's hunger strike comes after a series of events that arose when she attempted to return home after receiving an honor in New York on October 20 for peaceful advocacy. The Sahrawis have lived under occupation by the Kingdom of Morocco since a military invasion in 1975. Morocco has treated the Sahwaris with brutal repressive measures and defied international rulings that call for free elections in the resource-rich land. Thousands of Sahrawis have had to flee and live in decrepit refugee camps in neighboring Algeria.

Haidar, now Chairwoman of the Collective of Sahrawi Human Rights Defenders, was arrested in 1987 at age 21 for a nonviolent protest and was imprisoned in secret detention centers for four years, during which time she and 17 other women were tortured. She was arrested again in 2005 after being violently attacked by Moroccan police at a peaceful demonstration and was held for seven months in a "black prison" until international pressure resulted in her release.

On November 13, Moroccan authorities detained Haidar at the Laayoune airport in Western Sahara, denied her the right to return to her home, confiscated her passport and forcibly removed her to the Canary Islands. Moroccan authorities claimed that Haidar had improperly filled out her re-entry documents by failing to check "Morocco" as her home country. Haidar believes that Spain has been complicit in permitting Morocco to remove her to that country without travel documents, said Ambassador Said. "This lady has done nothing wrong. Morocco doesn't like the way she has organized internationally," he said.

After five days on a hunger strike, Haidar, while weak, is firm in her insistence that Morocco must return her passport and recognize her right to return home. "The Moroccans are testing the international community to see if they can get away with this. If they can, they will do more things," commented Ambassador Said.

From Honor to Hunger,
Demanding An End to World Passivity

Less than a month earlier, Haidar stood before a small group in the elegant wood-paneled Rockefeller Room of the Harold Pratt House on the Upper East Side in New York to accept the prestigious Civil Courage Prize of the Train Foundation.

The award, given to those who demonstrate "steadfast resistance to evil at great personal risk," cited her "courageous campaign" for the political self-determination of her people and against abuses of prisoners of conscience. Foundation chair John Train noted that Haidar, who holds a baccalaureate in modern literature, is also a woman's rights advocate. "The first thing tyrants do is to silence the women," said Train.

Speaking through a translator, Haidar described a "humanitarian tragedy suffered by the Sahrawi people." In addition to the thousands who have had to flee, repressive measures have frustrated education; fisheries and phosphate mines have been pillaged; and, human rights activists have been killed, beaten, and had their homes looted. "Campaigns of kidnappings and arbitrary arrests have hit all Sahrawis without regard to age or sex: old people and young people, women, including pregnant women, and even infants," said Haidar. "Ladies and gentlemen, I am myself a victim of this crime against humanity," she said.

Nearby at the awards event, Irish filmmaker Simon Hudson of Stoney Road Films showed pictures of the desolate conditions in Sahrawi refugee camps and underscored that world attention to their plight has been scant. Moroccan authorities have refused to allow him to film in Western Sahara, he said.

Haidar, who has been recognized with human rights awards from the European Parliament, Amnesty International USA and was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, used her remarks to call upon the international community "to renounce its attitude as a passive spectator with regard to the abuses of the Sahrawi population."

Events now may force that to happen. In an interview in October, Haidar said, "I am sure when I go back that I will be arrested at the airport."

As her prediction came true, the events are spurring international pressure, according to Ambassador Said.

Monika Kalra Varma of the RFK Center said, "The situation is all the more urgent because Aminatou suffers from serious health problems." The RFK Center asked the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights to begin an immediate investigation, and invited citizens to submit email letters of concern through its website.

"Doctors are very concerned," said the Ambassador at Large. "There needs to be pressure on Spain and Morocco to act."

Posted in accordance with Title 17, Section 107, US Code, for noncommercial, educational purposes.

Fears Grow for Hunger Strike Nobel Nominee
Giles Tremlett / The Observer

LANZAROTE , Canary Islands (November 29, 2009) — They call Aminatou Haidar the Gandhi of the Western Sahara. And the latest unlikely backdrop to her struggle for the independence of her forgotten desert homeland is a check-in hall full of sun-burned tourists at Arrecife airport on the Canary island of Lanzarote.

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".

© Guardian News and Media Limited 2009

The Robert F. Kennedy Center

November 16, 2009 -- Aminatou Haidar, the RFK Center's 2008 Human Rights Laureate, has begun a hunger strike following her forced removal from her homeland of Western Sahara.

Upon her arrival at the Laayoune airport in Western Sahara, she declared Western Sahara -- not Morocco -- as her homeland on her immigration entry form. Moroccan authorities then confiscated her passport, interrogated her overnight, declared that she had renounced her citizenship, and put her on a plane to the Canary Islands.

Join us today and call on United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Navanethem Pillay to immediately conduct an investigation into the circumstances of Aminatou's forced removal from Western Sahara and to establish a mechanism for the protection of human rights of the Saharawi people.

• Sign the Petition
To: United Nations High Commissioner
for Human Rights, Navanethem Pillay

Aminatou Haidar, known as the "Saharawi Ghandi" of Western Sahara for her peaceful resistance to violence, and the 2008 Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Laureate, went on hunger strike November 16th in protest of her forced removal from Western Sahara. Ms. Haidar's health is in a precarious condition, bringing an added urgency to this situation. Her removal from Western Sahara also raises concerns about her being stateless.

Ms. Haidar was put on board a plane destined for Lanzarote in the Canary Islands against her will by Moroccan authorities on November 14th, 2009, after she attempted to return to Western Sahara on November 13th 2009, following her visit to the U.S.

Ms. Haidar, who is fighting for the right to self-determination for the Saharawi people of Western Sahara, declared Western Sahara and not Morocco as her country on the immigration entry form she completed prior to disembarkation at the airport in Laayoune, as she had done in the past. Moroccan authorities confiscated her Moroccan passport and kept her overnight at the airport where they interrogated her. According to Moroccan authorities, Haidar renounced her Moroccan citizenship at the airport in Laayoune. Ms. Haidar has remained in the Canary Islands and cannot leave as Spanish authorities have prevented her from leaving without a passport or travel documents.

Since the eruption of the Western Sahara conflict in 1975, when Morocco first asserted its sovereignty over the territory, there have been consistent reports of human rights violations by Morocco against the Saharawi people of Western Sahara.

In 2006, your office identified the human rights situation in the region as a "serious concern" and called for the creation of a mechanism for ensuring adequate and continuous monitoring in both occupied territories and in refugee camps in Tindouf, Algeria. Ms. Haidar's situation highlights the importance and the urgent need for establishing such a human rights monitoring system in the region.

We urge you to immediately conduct an investigation into the circumstances of Ms. Haidar's forced removal from Western Sahara and to establish a mechanism for the protection of the human rights of the Saharawi people in Western Sahara and Tindouf.

• Sign the Petition




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