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Western Sahara activist returns home

Moroccan government backs down; Aminatou Haidar ends hunger strike, remains defiant.

Western Sahara independence campaigner Aminatou Haidar speaks to reporters as she leaves hospital in a wheelchair in Lanzarote, Spain's Canary Islands, Dec. 17, 2009. Haidar was on a hunger strike since Nov. 15 after being expelled from the disputed territory of Western Sahara to Spain. She later boarded a plane to Layounne in the Western Sahara, after a deal was struck allowing her to return. (Borja Suarez/Reuters)

RABAT, Morocco — The 32-day hunger strike that prodded Morocco to let human rights campaigner Aminatou Haidar return to her home may have left her physically weakened and confined to bed, but she remained brazenly defiant in her cause.

“I’m never going to apologize, not to the king nor to anyone else,” she told reporters from her home in Layounne, in the disputed territory of Western Sahara. “Because I’m not guilty, I’m not a criminal. The guilty party is the Moroccan regime.”

Morocco annexed the desert territory of Western Sahara in 1975, but decades later it remains perhaps the kingdom’s touchiest political issue. A move that seemed designed to silence one of their most prominent critics ended up handing her an unlikely victory.

Last month, Morocco accused long-time independence campaigner Haidar of abandoning her Moroccan citizenship, deported her and repeatedly denounced her in the press. But eventually Morocco yielded.

“You have this tiny, frail woman from the desert who basically stands up to Morocco and they back down,” said Jacob Mundy, a Western Sahara specialist with the Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies at the University of Exeter in the United Kingdom. “I just wonder how Morocco is going to save face in all of this because basically it looks like they caved in.”

Haidar ran afoul of authorities in the Layounne airport on Nov. 13, on her way home from winning a high-profile human rights award in New York City. As she says she’s always done, Haidar wrote the phrase “Western Sahara” in the address section of her entry documents. But this time, she says police objected, telling her no such place exists. She said police confiscated her passport, interrogated her for 24 hours, then ordered her expelled.

Morocco disputes this account, saying Haidar renounced her citizenship at the airport in the presence of family members and a royal prosecutor.

Haidar was sent to the Spanish-controlled Canary Islands, where her connecting flight had originated. Moroccan officials offered Haidar her passport back in exchange for a formal apology.

Haidar — who has been jailed several times for her activism — refused. She staged a hunger strike at the Arrecife airport. Subsisting on nothing more than sugared water, she vowed to return home “dead or alive.”