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SPAIN: One Month into Hunger Strike, “Sahrawi Gandhi” in ICU

Tito Drago

MADRID, Dec 17 2009 (IPS) - Aminatou Haidar, the Western Sahara independence activist who has been on a hunger strike in a Spanish airport for 32 days demanding to be allowed to return to her homeland, was taken to the hospital just after midnight Wednesday, and is in intensive care.

Haidar has been fasting since her passport and identity document were confiscated by Moroccan authorities on Nov. 14 as she was returning to her hometown El-Ayoun – the capital of Western Sahara – via Spain following a trip to receive a human rights prize in the United States.

On her entry form, Haidar had left the citizenship line blank and listed her place of residence as “Western Sahara” rather than “Morocco” – which she said she had frequently done in the past without any problems.

Western Sahara, a phosphate-rich desert territory on the northwest coast of Africa bordered by Morocco, Algeria and Mauritania was annexed by Morocco after Spain, the former colonial power, pulled out in 1975.

After hours of questioning, Haidar was put on a plane against her will on Nov. 15 to Spain’s Canary Islands in the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Morocco. Since landing in the city of Lanzarote on Nov. 16 she has been on a hunger strike in the airport, demanding to be given back her passport and allowed to return to her two children in El-Ayoun.

But the Moroccan authorities insist that it is a political, not a humanitarian, problem, and that her hunger strike is part of a “plot” directed by Algeria and the Polisario Front, the Sahrawi independence movement, which is based in that country.

Morocco also considers itself a “victim” of the situation, as the country’s Economy Minister Salaheddine Mezouar said Thursday in Madrid.

Because of her delicate condition, the Spanish government decided to send a plane to Lanzarote to take her on a direct flight to El-Ayoun, accompanied by a Spanish doctor and her sister Laila Haidar.

Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero’s chief of staff, Bernardino León, personally phoned Haidar to inform her. The flight is to take place Thursday night, although Morocco’s position has not been reported.

A few hours earlier, Foreign Minister Miguel Ángel Moratinos told the press they were close to a solution arranged with the Moroccan government.

Haidar had earlier turned down Spain’s offer of political asylum or citizenship.

The 43-year-old Haidar, president of the Collective of Sahrawi Human Rights Defenders (CODESA), is one of the leading activists for self-determination for Western Sahara. She has received an outpouring of international support, from the British parliament to Nobel laureates and human rights groups like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.

Known as the “Sahrawi Gandhi”, she has been forcibly disappeared, held and tortured in Moroccan prisons, and has won international awards like the prestigious Robert F. Kennedy human rights prize. She was also nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2008.

Although the Polisario Front agreed to a ceasefire in 1991, the talks on Western Sahara are at a standstill over incompliance with United Nations agreements, which call for a referendum in which Sahrawis would choose between integration with Morocco and independence.

Morocco refuses to consider the option of independence, offering autonomy instead.

Severo Moto, president of the “government in exile” of Equatorial Guinea, told IPS that it is clear that the Moroccan government holds a large share of responsibility for Haidar’s situation.

But he said he believes the Spanish government is mainly responsible, because the authorities allowed Haidar into the country at Lanzarote without a passport, rather than putting her back on a plane to El-Ayoun.

He added that “the decolonisation of Western Sahara is not taken seriously, and Spain is chiefly responsible for that, even today.”

Haidar’s lawyer Inés Miranda pointed out that her client was forced to enter Spain illegally, because any foreigner wishing to enter the country needs a passport to do so.

After suffering from stomach pain and severe nausea, and vomiting blood, the activist was admitted to the hospital in Lanzarote, where she is in the intensive care unit.

Since the start of her fast she has lost six kilos, approximately 10 percent of her body weight. She had preexisting health problems, such as a gastric ulcer.

The doctors treating her warned that she would quickly go downhill, and that they would have to decide whether to feed her against her will, or allow her to fast “to the end.”

In the hospital she is only receiving painkillers, and is being rehydrated by intravenous drip. The director of the hospital, Domingo Guzmán, has been acting as her personal physician.

Haidar already held a hunger strike when she was a prisoner in Morocco, in 2005. It lasted 32 days. She was demanding to be tried as a political prisoner rather than a criminal, and was protesting the torture she had suffered in prison.

Now, in statements to the reporters who have continually flocked around her since she began her hunger strike, she has made it clear that she plans to continue her fast to the death if she is not given back her passport and allowed to return to Morocco.

Fernando Pieraita, a spokesman for her support group, said she is very weak and can barely talk, “but what keeps her going are her mental strength and the conviction of the justice of her cause.”

On Tuesday, the Spanish parliament passed a motion – approved by all parties except the centre-right Popular Party, the main opposition force, which abstained – stating that the situation should be managed “at the highest level.” That indirectly paved the way for the King of Spain to personally intervene.

The resolution also emphasised the Sahrawi people’s right to self-determination, and said Morocco should allow Haidar to return home “without delay.”

Haidar says she will return home, “dead or alive.”

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