Marooned at Lanzarote airport, the 'Gandhi of the Western Sahara'

Disowned by Morocco, unwanted in Spain: Anita Brooks reports on the plight of a Nobel-nominated activist

Wednesday 02 December 2009 01:00

Expelled from her homeland and weak from a hunger strike, the last thing award-winning Sahrawi independence activist Aminatou Haidar needs right now is a €180 fine.

But that's what a Spanish court has ordered her to pay for disturbing the peace at the Lanzarote airport in the Canary Islands, where the woman known as the Gandhi of the Western Sahara has camped since 16 November, refusing to eat anything but sugar water in protest at what she sees as her forced exile by Morocco.

The court fine came after Aena, the company that runs the airport, filed a complaint in a local Arrecife court, which on Monday issued a "minimal" €180 (£160) fine on the weakening activist. It is the latest twist to the surreal tale of how this Nobel Prize nominee wound up on a check-in terminal floor surrounded by sun-seeking tourists, her passport rescinded by Moroccan authorities.

Her Kafkaesque plight – which began when Ms Haidar refused to fill in the citizenship line of a customs form – has spurred an outpouring of support by Spanish artists and intellectuals such as film director Pedro Almodovar. They staged a concert outside Madrid at the weekend to pressure the Spanish government into doing more to help Ms Haidar return home.

"If I held a government post, I would be with her today," Almodovar told the crowd. "I would tell her that to preserve her dignity she doesn't have to die."

Portuguese Nobel laureate Jose Saramago was expected to visit her at the airport yesterday. A representative from the Robert F Kennedy Centre for Justice and Human Rights in Washington, Marselha Goncalves Margerin, is also by her side. The RFK Centre awarded her its 2008 prize, for denouncing human rights abuses by the Moroccan government.

"I think Morocco miscalculated about the amount of support she has all over the world," Ms Goncalves Margerin told The Independent as Ms Haidar began her 16th day of hunger strike. Ms Haidar's health continues to deteriorate – she can only move in a stretcher or wheelchair – as the Spanish foreign ministry searches for a solution. She fainted during negotiations at the weekend.

But so far she has rejected offers of Spanish nationality, as well as political asylum in Spain. They are unacceptable, according to her lawyer, Ines Miranda, because they would make her "a foreigner in her own land".

Spain's Foreign Minister, Miguel Angel Moratinos, announced on Monday that she seemed happy with a new plan: the return of her original passport, which he is negotiating with Morocco.

The 42-year-old activist has devoted her life to the peaceful quest for independence of her mineral-rich desert homeland, a former Spanish colony now controlled by Morocco. She has been tortured and imprisoned in secret Moroccan jails. It took her 15 years for the authorities to grant her a passport.

Last month, she used that passport to travel to the United States, where she received an award from the Train Foundation in New York for her struggles. Then on 14 November she tried to return home to her husband and two teenage daughters in the Western Sahara's main town, Laayoune.

But before she reached the customs desk at Laayoune airport, a Moroccan officer questioned her about why she had left the citizenship line blank on her immigration entry form. Why had she written Western Sahara instead of Morocco in the address line? Her answer did not please authorities, and her passport was confiscated. She was told to sign a form renouncing her citizenship and was forced onto a plane. To where, she did not know.

Once in Lanzarote, she asked the Spanish authorities to be allowed to return to the Western Sahara. But they would not let her board a plane without a passport. According to Ms Goncalves Margerin, Ms Haidar believes Morocco planned her expulsion long before she left for the US, as part of a crackdown against Sahrawis who support the Polisario Front.

Ms Haidar also believes that Spain knew of the Moroccan plan in advance and agreed to offer the activist Spanish nationality. She already possesses a Spanish residency card.

"When she was in the US, she said: 'I expected two things to happen; either they will arrest me or they will take away my travel documents.' But she never thought they would expel her," Ms Goncalves Margerin said. "What is heartbreaking is that Spain agreed to accept her."

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