x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Saharan activist's brief taste of victory

Aminetu Haidar vows to continue hunger strike to death as Morocco backs out of agreement with Spain to return exile home, jeopardising peace talks.

People spell out Aminetu Haidar 's name with their bodies outside the Arrecife airport on Sunday.
People spell out Aminetu Haidar 's name with their bodies outside the Arrecife airport on Sunday.

RABAT // On Friday, Aminatou Haidar, a Saharawi independence activist on hunger strike in a Canary Islands airport since her expulsion last month from Moroccan-held Western Sahara, was suddenly whisked aboard a plane for home - and just as suddenly, returned to her bed. At the last minute, Morocco had backed out of an agreement with Spain to return Ms Haidar to her home city of Laâyoune, Spanish authorities said. Morocco's foreign ministry denies that any such agreement was reached. Ms Haidar's exile and hunger strike are swiftly raising the stakes in a three-way game of chicken involving her, Morocco and Spain. The impasse has strained relations between the two countries, often-grumpy neighbours compelled by geography to get along. And it threatens to upset UN-led peace talks on Western Sahara between Morocco and the Polisario Front, an Algerian-backed independence movement.

For three weeks, Ms Haidar has camped out with supporters in Arrecife airport on Lanzarote, one of Spain's Canary Islands. Subsisting only on sugared water, she is now barely able to speak or rise from her bed in a small room she occupies, said Guillermo Toledo, a spokesman for Ms Haidar. "But psychologically she's still very strong, very determined, very able to think about her position," Mr Toledo said. "She's not going to give up, which makes us very nervous." Ms Haidar, repeatedly imprisoned by Moroccan authorities and the recipient last year of the Robert F Kennedy human rights award in the United States, has vowed to carry her hunger strike to the death. In a statement yesterday, she refused all further medical attention.

The trouble began last month when authorities at Laâyoune airport expelled Ms Haidar to Lanzarote as she returned from collecting another peace prize in the United States. Morocco says she voluntarily renounced Moroccan citizenship; she says her passport was forcibly confiscated. It was the latest of many run-ins between Moroccan authorities and Ms Haidar, a leading independence campaigner for Western Sahara, a former Spanish colony largely annexed by Morocco after Spain withdrew in 1975. That led Morocco into a 16-year war with the Polisario, which had previously contested Spanish rule, and drove roughly half of the territory's native Saharawis into Polisario-run refugee camps in Algeria, where today they number over 100,000. The United Nations brokered a ceasefire in 1991 meant to allow a referendum on independence, but disagreements over voter lists have prevented it.

In August a new round of UN-mediated peace talks was launched in Vienna. The Polisario still wants an independence referendum, while Morocco proposes limited autonomy instead. However, tempers have risen on both sides in recent months as Morocco has jailed Saharawi activists it accuses of working for the Polisario, a clampdown that gathered momentum with Ms Haidar's expulsion. As her strength ebbs, international players including the UN, the United States and the European Union have urged Spain and Morocco to reach an agreement on her future. So far, Ms Haidar has refused both Morocco's demand that she apologise in return for re-entry, and an offer of citizenship from Spain, which she says was complicit in her expulsion.

"Spain bears direct responsibility for the consequences of my hunger strike," Ms Haidar said in a statement on Saturday. "My only demand is to return home to my children and my mother in Laâyoune, Western Sahara." That puts pressure on authorities in Spain, where support for Ms Haidar's cause is strong, said Jacob Mundy, a Western Sahara expert and co-author of a forthcoming book on the Western Sahara conflict. "But Spain also requires good relations with Morocco on security, migration, trade and host of other important issues." On Sunday, José Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, the Spanish president, said Spain had to balance its help to Ms Haidar with the need for long-term cooperation with Morocco, reported Spain's ABC newspaper. But even qualified Spanish support for Ms Haidar may touch a raw nerve in Morocco, which Spain once partly colonised in addition to Western Sahara, Mr Mundy said.

"There's a sense of hurt," he said. "The Moroccan point of view is that it adds insult to injury that so much Spanish public opinion supports self-determination for Western Sahara." Meanwhile, the Polisario has said that the stand-off over Ms Haidar threatens peace talks with Morocco, and is urging her safe return home. "Whatever the outcome with Aminatou Haidar, we're probably looking at a significant delay in the peace process," Mr Mundy said. "If not a total collapse." jthorne@thenational.ae