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.”
As days turned into weeks, pressure mounted on the Moroccan government to relent. The story was front-page news in Spain on an almost daily basis. Oscar-winning actor Javier Bardem and director Pedro Almodovar joined thousands of other Spaniards in publicly calling for Haidar’s return. On Dec. 10, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called Morocco’s foreign minister to express concern for Haidar’s health. In the days preceding Haidar’s homecoming, top Moroccan officials held meetings on the standoff with officials in France and the United States.
Representatives with the Polisario Front — a pro-independence group representing 125,000 displaced Western Sahara residents living in Algerian refugee camps — judged the American push to be decisive.
“Without the role of the United States, I don’t think Aminatou would be with her family,” said Polisario’s representative in Washington, D.C., Mouloud Said.
Morocco’s often-secretive interior ministry acknowledged the international pressure in a rare statement issued last week via the state-run wire service, saying, “Haidar's return followed repeated calls made, particularly by friendly countries, to find, from a humanitarian perspective, a solution to the situation.”
Morocco’s foreign ministry said Friday that Haidar herself broke the impasse by agreeing to forgo any mention of Western Sahara in her entry documents. The phrase appeared “nowhere” in Haidar’s entry documents, said a foreign ministry official who asked for anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly about Western Sahara. “She acted according to all formalities.”
But as with so many skirmishes in the Western Sahara dispute, the other side tells a different story. Haidar’s supporters claim she returned home in the company of her sister and made no concessions whatsoever.
“She did absolutely not fill out any kind of forms upon her entry,” said Malainin Lakhal, the director of the Saharawi Journalists and Writers Union, a pro-independence group that has stayed in close touch with Haidar throughout the hunger strike.
At the airport this time around, Haidar’s sister handed over her own passport to police, Lakhal said, “and was surprised that the policemen gave her back two passports instead of one, when she opened them she found out that they gave her passport and Aminatou's passport.”
It remains to be seen how this turn of events will influence the next round of negotiations between Morocco and the Polisario. In previous rounds, Morocco — backed by the United States and other allies — has made an offer to grant the region limited autonomy while still keeping hold of the territory. Polisario steadfastly held out for a referendum on independence.
Perhaps sensing a momentary advantage, Polisario’s representatives are not claiming this victory as their own. “I don’t think we should tie any politics to this humanitarian situation,” Said said. “We just hope that the Moroccans will have a change of heart.”