The 32-day standoff that had been playing out on the volcanic Canarian Island of Lanzarote between the Moroccan government and hunger-striking human rights activist, Aminatou Haidar, reached a dramatic denouement yesterday. A day that had started with Haidar’s hospitalisation ended with the 42-year old mother of two being flown home on a special Spanish military plane equipped with medical equipment. Her return followed intense international diplomatic pressure in which UN and the governments of Spain, France and the US had been heavily involved.
In the early hours of Thursday morning Haidar had asked to go to the hospital following a bout of severe abdominal pain and vomiting blood. Doctors who examined her said she was severely dehydrated and expressed fears that she could be nearing an irreversible deterioration that could result in her death even if she were to abandon the hunger strike. However, as the day progressed, concerns about her health turned to excitement as whispers about a resolution to the crisis began to circulate.
At around 10pm local time, Haidar was stretched to a waiting ambulance and driven from the hospital to the airport. She boarded the aircraft with her sister, Laila Haidar, and doctor Domingo de Guzman Perez Hernandez, director of Lanzarote Hospital who has been caring for her from the start. The aircraft took off at 10.30pm and landed at Hassan I airport in Laayoune, Western Sahara’s largest town, just after midnight. Her passport was returned to her by a customs officer and according to a Moroccan Interior Ministry statement, Haidar completed the usual customs and police formalities.
At the airport she was met by relatives including her children and was driven with them back to her home where Haidar, who had continued to fast on the the plane, tasted her first food for over a month. Dozens of her supporters congregated around the house until the early hours of the morning. An earlier larger gathering was dispersed by Moroccan police.
Ms Haidar’s hunger-strike had been staged very publicly in Lanzarote airport terminal in protest at her unlawful deportation by Moroccan authorities after she had refused to write her nationality as Moroccan on a landing card when returning from a trip abroad. The Moroccans were insisting that before she could be readmitted, Haidar recognise the sovereignty of Morocco and apologise for having questioned it. These requirements were in breach of international law and international concern for Haidar has been building steadily culminating over the past week with statements by UN General Secretary Ban ki Moon and a visit to Madrid on Monday by Hilary Clinton to discuss the matter with the Spanish Foreign Minster, Miguel Ángel Moratinos. It seems that international pressure was successful and Haidar went home without having made any concessions to Morocco. “She is returning without conditions having been placed and without apologising,” said Carmelo Ramirez, president of FEDISSAH a Spanish Western Saharan solidarity organisation.
“This is a momentous day” said Laamine Baali, Polisario representative in Britain, hardly able to contain his relief and joy at Haidar’s return. However he pointed out that the situation for her and for other Saharawi activists is far from secure. “We remain deeply concerned for the safety of Aminatou both in terms of her suffering permanent damage to her health as a result of the hunger strike and also at the hands of Moroccan authorities who have had imprisoned and tortured before” he said. “Her safety and that of other human rights defenders such as the seven awaiting trial by military tribunal in Rabat, remains precarious and the world must not now look away.” Haidar herself was upbeat as she boarded the plane in Lanzarote. “This is a triumph, a victory for international rights, for human rights and for international justice” she said, her face breaking into a smile for the first time in many weeks.
By Stefan Simanowitz, report from Lanzarote