The detention and deportation of Western Sahara’s most prominent human rights activist could backfire on Morocco as the action attracts worldwide condemnation. Aminatou Haidar, known has the “Sahrawi Gandhi”, was deported from her home to Lanzarote by the Moroccans on Saturday and has been on hunger strike in the airport terminal ever since.
Haidar, winner of the 2008 Robert F Kennedy human rights prize and Nobel Peace Prize nominee, had just flown back to Laayoune, the main city in Moroccan-controlled Western Sahara, from a trip abroad. At the airport she refused to declare her nationality as Moroccan on the arrival form and the police detained her, confiscated her passport and expelled her to the Canary Islands.
The Spanish government have indicated that she will not be allowed to leave Spanish territory until she has some travel papers. However, she has accused Spain of complicity in her deportation pointing out that she should not have been allowed to travel without a passport. “I would rather be imprisoned in Western Sahara than detained in Spain,” Haidar insisted today, the third day of her self-imposed starvation.
Indeed, the 42 year-old mother-of-two is no stranger to detention. In 1987, she was “disappeared” and tortured for more than three years for her pro-independence activities and in 2005 she spent seven months in the so-called “black prison” of Laayoune.
This incident comes at a time of heightened tensions in the so-called occupied territories. Since the start of October, human rights groups within occupied Western Sahara have documented a steep rise in instances of violence, arrest and torture of Saharawi activists, most notably the detention of seven prominent human rights defenders currently awaiting sentence from a military court in Rabat. Their ‘crime’ was to visit the refugee camps in the Algerian desert where around 165,000 Saharawi refugees have lived for three decades and their arrests have been condemned by politicians and human rights organisations around the world including Amnesty International.
This escalation of repression and the expulsion of Aminatou Haidar follow the appointment of Christopher Ross as the new UN Special Envoy to Western Sahara and recent hopes that, with support from the Obama government, a breakthrough to the diplomatic stalemate might finally be found. Indeed some analysts believe that the crack-down is an attempt by the Moroccan authorities to scupper long awaited UN-sponsored negotiations before they even start.
Stefan Simanowitz, chair of the global campaigning organisation, the Free Western Sahara Network, argues that such a collapse “might backfire” on Morocco. “By perpetrating violence and repression against the very people they have committed themselves to negotiate with, Morocco could be seen as not playing a straight hand and as a result come under greater international diplomatic and political pressure.
“Already Moroccan claims of sovereignty are not recognised by a single nation and have been dismissed by the International Court of Justice. Over 100 UN resolutions have been passed calling for a referendum on self-determination for the Saharawi people. With President Obama committed to using negotiations to resolve the conflict in the Western Sahara, it is unlikely that any attempts to derail the talks by arresting human rights defenders and deporting human rights activists such as Ms Haidar, will be looked on kindly.”
Tuesday, Amensty International released a statement in which it stated that the organisation “deplores the decision of the Moroccan Authorities to expel Haidar” and “urges the authorities to immediately allow her to return to her home in Laayoune”