Weak and in pain, but home after 32-day hunger strike

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The Independent Online

Weak and in pain, Aminatou Haidar, the award-winning Sahrawi activist expelled by Morocco, has finally returned to her Western Sahara homeland after a 32-day hunger strike among tourists at Lanzarote airport.

"This is a victory for international human rights, for international justice and for the Sahrawi cause," she whispered from her stretcher to a crowd of reporters, before boarding the private plane that carried her from the Spanish Canary Islands to her home town of Laayoune.

Known as the Gandhi of Western Sahara, she was allowed home after intense negotiations between Rabat, Madrid, Paris and Washington. Her Moroccan passport was returned to her when she landed, according to the Spanish doctor who accompanied her. She was not asked to publicly apologise or recognise Moroccan nationality in exchange for her return, as Moroccan authorities had initially demanded.

Ms Haidar, 42, who has been tortured and jailed by Moroccan authorities for her peaceful defence of Western Sahara independence, was expelled from the country in November for "improperly" filling in a customs form on her return from the US, where she had been to receive a human rights award. She had refused to fill in the blank for nationality.

The activist looks unassuming and her cause – the independence of the mineral-rich Western Sahara, a former Spanish colony controlled by Morocco – is one of the world's forgotten struggles, rarely a blip on the media radar, despite 30 years of conflict and a decade's uneasy truce.

But Ms Haidar's willpower and sugar-water diet caused an outpouring of support by artists and intellectuals, including film director Pedro Almodovar and Nobel prize-winning novelist Jose Saramago, who visited Ms Haidar at her mattress on the floor in Lanzarote airport. It also unleashed a diplomatic storm that sucked in US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, French President Nicolas Sarkozy and UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon.

On Thursday, as she checked in to a Spanish hospital for treatment of stomach pains, Morocco's King Mohammed VI sent a top adviser and a secret service chief to Washington and his Foreign Minister to Paris. US and UN officials reportedly convinced Morocco that a humanitarian gesture towards Ms Haidar would help its position in future negotiations with the independence-seeking Polisario Front over the political future of the Western Sahara.