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Morocco cracks down on critics and journalists

Western Sahara activist on hunger strike highlights new wave of repression.

Yet it was just those reforms that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton hailed without reservation during her visit to Morocco last month, citing progress Morocco has made on democracy and human rights in the decade since King Mohammed VI assumed the throne.

“The United States has watched with great admiration the progress that Morocco has achieved under his leadership,” Clinton said during a Nov. 2 appearance, in which she reaffirmed that America backs Morocco on Western Sahara.

The closest Clinton came to addressing the recent crackdown was saying she wanted “to see an emphasis on freedom of the press and freedom of expression throughout the region in every country” during a Nov. 3 meeting, in response to a direct question about press freedom in Morocco.

Days after Clinton left, the king took a hard line against opposition voices, singling out independence activists in Western Sahara.

“One is either a patriot or a traitor," he said in a Nov. 6 speech celebrating the territory's 1975 annexation. "One cannot enjoy the rights and privileges of citizenship, only to abuse them and conspire with the enemies of the homeland."

At least some here see a connection between Clinton’s public support and the king’s ultimatum. “There has to be a relationship,” Ben Shemsi said. “Clinton supported Morocco strongly and I think he feels more emboldened.”

An official with Morocco’s foreign ministry dismissed this idea as “pure speculation of press.” The official, who asked for anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly about Western Sahara issues, instead characterized the move against Haidar and other activists as “a decision to say enough is enough.”

A week after the king’s speech, airport police in Laayoune, Western Sahara’s main city, detained Haidar on her way home. The activist said she had left the nationality line blank on her entry documents, and wrote “Western Sahara” in the address section. Though she said she has been filling out the paperwork the same way for years, this time the police objected. She said authorities confiscated her passport, interrogated her for 24 hours, then ordered her expelled.

Moroccan officials dispute this account, saying Haidar renounced and willingly signed away her citizenship in the presence of family members and a government prosecutor. In a statement released Monday, Morocco’s foreign minister, Taib Fassi Fihri, characterized Haidar’s hunger strike as a bid to disrupt upcoming peace talks between Morocco and the Polisario Front, an independence movement representing about 125,000 displaced Western Sahara residents living in Algerian refugee camps.

“Aminatou Haidar is not a human rights activist, but a Polisario agent,” the statement said.

Although Haidar spoke with GlobalPost a few days into the strike, her supporters at Arrecife airport said on Tuesday she is no longer able to give interviews.

Haidar has subsisted on nothing but sugar water for the past three weeks and renounced medical care on Monday evening, said Man Chagaf, a Saharawi supporter who has been with Haidar since the hunger strike began. Chagaf described her condition on Tuesday as “stable but quite weak.”

Moroccan officials last week said Haidar could be issued a new passport if she formally apologizes to the government. But the mother of two continues to court death, staunchly maintaining she has nothing to be sorry about.