A Western Saharan human rights activist is in the third week of a hunger strike after being deported against her will by Moroccan authorities occupying her homeland. Aminatou Haidar, known as the “Sahrawi Gandhi,” is at the airport on the Canary Islands and is demanding that she be allowed to return to home. Morocco has occupied most of Western Sahara since 1975.
We go to the Lanzarote airport to speak with Spanish actor Guillermo “Willie” Toledo, who is at Haider’s side, we also speak with Mouloud Said, the Washington DC representative of the Sahrawi independence movement, the Polisario Front, and with University of San Francisco Professor Stephen Zunes, co-author of the forthcoming book “Western Sahara: Nationalism, Conflict, and International Accountability.”
*Rush transcript follows*.
**AMY GOODMAN**: We turn now to a part of the world few Americans pay attention to. I’m talking about the Western Sahara, a disputed territory in North Africa bordering Morocco, Mauritania, and Algeria. Formerly controlled by Spain, Morocco has occupied most of the territory since 1975, just when the Western Sahara was gaining its independence from Spain.
In October a Western Saharan independence activist Aminatou Haidar was in New York to receive the 2009 Civil Courage prize for her non-violent resistance to the Moroccan occupation of Sahrawi land. She is often called the “Sahrawi Gandhi.”
When she returned home a few weeks later she was arrested by Moroccan officials. They seized her Moroccan passport and expelled her against her will to an airport on Spain’s Canary Islands. Moroccan authorities say she was deported because refused to sign a paper saying she was a Moroccan citizen and declared Western Sahara as her country of origin on the immigration entry form.
Aminatou Haidar began a hunger strike inside Lanzarote airport in the Canary Islands 2 weeks ago demanding that she be allowed to return to her home in the Western Sahara. But she remains in the airport, surrounded by supporters, her health deteriorating.
Aminatou’s supporters include the Robert F Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights which honored her last year and Spanish celebrities like film director Pedro Almodovar and actors Javier Bardem and Guillermo “Willie” Toledo.
We’re joined now by 3 guests. Spanish actor Willie Toledo joins us on the line from inside the Lanzarote airport in the Spanish controlled Canary Islands where Aminatou Haidar remains on her hunger strike. Here in Washington, DC I’m joined by Mouloud Said, he’s the Washington, DC representative of the Sahrawi independence movement known as the Polisario Front.And from Mountainview, California, we’re joined by University of San Francisco Professor Stephen Zunes. He’s the author, along with Jacob Mundy, of the forthcoming book “Western Sahara: Nationalism, Conflict, and International Accountability.”
We welcome you all to “Democracy Now!” I want to first go to Steven Zunes. Just for an American audience, in addition to people around the world, explain exactly what this conflict is, before we go to the Canary Islands where the human rights activist is right now in her third week of the hunger strike.
**STEPHEN ZUNES**: What we’re looking at is a situation quite comparable to East Timor and that it was a late decolonizing, relatively small colony that was invaded and gobbled up by a powerful neighbor in violation of the most basic principles of the U.N. International Law. Because that powerful neighbor happened to have powerful friends, in this case the United States and Morocco, a whole series of UN Security Council Resolutions calling for an end of the occupation and the right of self-determination have been ignored. And t he people of Western Sahara initially took up arms to fight the Moroccans, but agreed to a cease-fire in 1991 in return for Moroccan promises of a referendum to determine fate of the territory. But the Moroccans continually blocked the referendum from going forward. More recently, the independence struggle has turned to a nonviolent struggle, what they call an Intifada for independence of which Aminatou Haidar is the most significant leader.
**AMY GOODMAN**: Mouloud Sahid, you’re here in Washington, D.C., talk about where you see the struggle going and significance of vowed Aminatou Haidar’s hunger strike, what it means.
**MOULOUD SAHID**: Good morning Amy and thank you very much for paying attention to this extremely sad situation. It’s really sad what is happening, its extremely sad this happens in the 21st century. All of us were so hopeful after listening to President Obama at the UN last September when he expressed his commitment to the human-rights and his commitment to the rights of every people to self-determination. This is a clear case now for the U.S. administration and the U.S. president to show his commitment. This is the first time ever where an occupying power, we had experiences this in the past with Namibia when it was occupied by South Africa, by the racist regime of South Africa.
We had the experience with Indonesia and the occupied East Timor, never ever was a human rights activist was expelled from his or her own territory. This is a clear violation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights which Morocco signed in 1979. Now the situation is extremely volatile. We have a woman who had life and is now in limbo. For the only reason that she wants to be with her family. She has two children they are teenagers. She is 42 years old. She already has experienced jail, disappearance and torture under Morocco for many years. She was a blindfolded for four years in a Moroccan jail where she was disappeared. Her only crime is to claim her right to free expression, the rights of the people in Western Sahara to have a day where they can choose their destiny. And just because of her international recognition and all the awards you just mentioned Amy, the Moroccans they believe that this is a threat to their occupation and therefore, they decided to expel her to Spain. Both Morocco and Spain are responsible of the situation. First of all Morocco for violating the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and secondly, Spain for allowing Morocco to violate this international covenant and accepting Aminatou into Spain against her own will.
**AMY GOODMAN**: I want to go right now…
**MOULOUD SAHID**: Therefore we are calling on the international community.. yes?
**AMY GOODMAN**: I want to go right now to the Canary Islands to the Lanzarote Airport where the famous Spanish actor Gillermo Toledo, Willie Toledo is, who has been with Aminatou now for three weeks. Willie Toledo, Welcome to “Democracy Now!” Can you explain exactly where you are, why you’re there, and the condition right now of Aminatou Haidar?
**GUILLERMO “WILLIE” TOLEDO**: Hello, good afternoon and thank you very much for the interest in this case. Well, we are here in the Lanzarote Airport in the Canary Islands for this is the third week of the hunger strike from Aminatou Haidar. Me and many other people who are around Aminatou Haidar are trying to give her message to all over the world. We are here because we are really fed up of our governments, which is supposed to be a democratic government. Who is traveling around the world speaking of human-rights and democracy, and civilizations, and [UNINTELLIGIBLE], and all that kind of empty words. They show now that they were all in two words because we don’t understand how democratic country in Spain is on the side of a country like Morocco, torturing, disappearing people, getting people into secret jails for years and years. [UNINTELLIGIBLE] She already passed through a 45 day hunger strike. And because we don’t understand how our government is on the side of Morocco which is a country that ignores any human-rights. And we are just fed up with all that situation, mostly because Western Sahara and used to be a Spanish part of the Spanish state back in 1975. And the Spanish government, one after the other one, since 1975, have been betraying the Sahrawi people who trust us to help them to get to their independence which—there is no one single country around the world who recognizes Western Sahara as part of the Moroccan country, not even the United Nations. There are—dozens of resolutions of the United Nations saying, and willing for a referendum for the freedom of the Sahrawi people. So we are now with Aminatou and here in the airport for—16 days ago.
**AMY GOODMAN**: Aminatou, her condition, is there any chance she could come on the phone, Willie Toledo?
**GUILLERMO “WILLIE” TOLEDO**: No, we tried. Today, the past two days, she has been very, very bad, her situation has turned critical. She can barely speak, she can no [longer] walk. We have to try and transport her in a wheelchair. And she is living in a very dirty and inhuman hole here at the airport. She hasn’t tried food since—16 days now. And she would like to say to all of you, thank you very much for your interest. She knew she could trust many people in the United States of America that are fighting for democracy and for freedom around the world and she is very touched because you had the time and the will to call her and simply ask how she is. Well the message is she is critical, the days are passing by and in a couple of days, the doctors and the medics say she is going to be maybe in irreversible situation, health irreversible situation.
**AMY GOODMAN**: Her demands right now, Willie?
**GUILLERMO “WILLIE” TOLEDO**: Her demands are nowadays the same demands that she made the first day. She only wants to go back home to her family, to her people, to her country ,where she is having a non-a violent struggle against all the different violations of the human-rights that are being every day in Morocco, and she just wants to go back home. She thinks, the law here in Spain technically and legally she was kidnapped. She was forced to get in a plane. Her passport and documents was removed from her, which is illegal. She was forced to get on in a plane and transported to another, different country, which is Spain. The Spanish government allowed her to get in the country without a passport, which is absolutely unusual and will never happen again and has never happened before in this country. So, she is just saying around the world that this is an unjust situation that she has been involved in. And the Spanish government is taking part in that, the Spanish government is taking part on the side of the Morocco country which has violated her human-rights. Her human rights and all the Sahrawi people’s human rights. That is the only demand she does, please, let them go back home.
**AMY GOODMAN**: The Nobel Prize winner for literature, Jose Saramago, is also with Aminatou?
**GUILLERMO “WILLIE” TOLEDO**: Yes, he came this morning. He is very old man, 92 years old. She is very weak. He lives on the island where we are. [UNINTELLIGIBLE]
**AMY GOODMAN**: We are losing you. We’re talking to Guillermo Toledo, Willie Toledo, who is a famous Spanish actor who has been at the side of Aminatou Haidar as she continues this hunger strike into her third week . With us here in Washington DC is Mouloud Sahid, who is a representative of the Polisario Front, and we are with Stephen Zunes, who is writing a book on the Western Sahara. Mouloud Sahid, the significance of Hillary Clinton, the Secretary of State, going to Morocco?
**MOULOUD SAHID**: I think not just the significance of her going, I know she was going to a forum, it wasn’t a visit to Morocco per se, but it was an international forum, a meeting there that she was invited to take part in, but I think her statements regarding the Moroccan role in human sights and which of unchallenged by the facts and were denied by the facts on the ground. We’re speaking about Aminatou, But there also seven other human rights activists, they are going to be taken before a military court, because of their political opinions. They will be taken to a military court one of these days. So, Aminatou is just the tip of the iceberg. Also we had two young girls last week that were traveling to London for their studies, and their passports were confiscated and lost their flight. We have some other six young Sahrawis that they were taken at the border with Mauritania, right now in jail with no passports. So Aminatou is just the tip of the iceberg. So we believe the timing of the statement by—Secretary Clinton, with all my due respect, the timing was wrong and the place was wrong.
**AMY GOODMAN**: Let me put that question also to Professor Stephen Zunes in San Francisco. The role of Hillary Clinton, but you also write extensively about the history of this conflict with everyone from Henry Kissinger to James Baker to John Bolton. Explain. Lay it out for us.
**STEPHEN ZUNES**: Well, basically, the U.S. has supported Morocco seen initially as an important anti-communist ally in the region, and more recently important an ally in the struggle of Islamic extremism. As a result, they are turning a blind eye to the gross systematic human rights violations by the Moroccan government in Western Sahara. In recent years, under the new king, things of liberalized a fair amount within Morocco itself, but in the Western Sahara, it is the most brutal police state I have ever seen.
And the Moroccans started a particularly vicious crackdown back in October, and just after they rounded up seven prominent human rights activist in Western Sahara, charging them with high treason, in comes Hillary Clinton and in an interview with the Moroccan press, gives unconditional praise to Morocco’s human rights record. Then she goes on, seems to endorse this mediation process the Morocco’s been pushing to get this kind of phony autonomy for Western Sahara without granting the people of Western Sahara the rights for the option of independence which is required for all non-self-governing territories, this right. If Morocco gets away with this so-called autonomy scheme, this will be the first time since the signing of the UN Charter, that a country has gotten away with expanding its boundaries by military force. –And I think emboldened by this endorsement by Clinton, I think it encouraged Moroccans to crackdown further, there have been more arrests, then of course this deportation of Aminatou Haidar.
And it is also important to emphasize that the deportation, the forced exile of people under foreign military occupation is a direct violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention, and yet the White House has been silent on it and the State Department was silent until a few days ago. and all that Ian Kelly, the State Department spokesperson could say was that he hoped for swift determination of Aminatou Haidar’s status. He said nothing about Morocco’s legal obligations to allowing her to return immediately. This is very disappointing , when Aminatou Haidar won the prize last year, Senator Leahy, who was standing in for an ailing Senator Kennedy, promised that help was on the way in the terms of the new administration. But all we’ve seen is a continuation of the Bush administration’s policy and those of the previous and administrations of supporting Morocco’s illegal and oppressive occupation.
**AMY GOODMAN**: Let me go back to Willie Toledo, in the airport. What are you calling for right now as you are there with Aminatou Haidar in the Canary Islands?
**GUILLERMO “WILLIE” TOLEDO**: Excuse me, what do you mean?
**AMY GOODMAN**: How can people get involved?
**GUILLERMO “WILLIE” TOLEDO**: Sorry, I did not hear the question.
**AMY GOODMAN**: How do you feel people can be involved in this issue as to speak to us from the airport in the Canary Islands where Aminatou is on the hunger strike?
**GUILLERMO “WILLIE” TOLEDO**: We are receiving lots of solidarity, that shows that there are many people from the island, many people from the home state, and many people from foreign countries that are coming and traveling over here. There have been people from Austria, people from Brazil, people from England, people from France, from the U.S., from right here there are two women from the Robert Kennedy Center spending the night with Aminatou who have been here for the last three days. Actually everybody is looking [UNINTELLIGIBLE] except for the Spanish government which is trying to look to another site. But they will have to give us a response. There will have to give Aminatou some solution because days are passing Aminatou Haidar’s health is getting more critical every day. So she is very happy about the…
**AMY GOODMAN**: Is she fasting to the death?
**GUILLERMO “WILLIE” TOLEDO**: Sorry?
**AMY GOODMAN**: Is she fasting to the death?
**GUILLERMO “WILLIE” TOLEDO**: Yes, she is fasting to the death, she is very determined with that. That is the struggle she decided to put on. She is very decided to hunger strike until death. If anybody knows Aminatou Haidar, I know her since a long time ago, we are sure that is she is very determined to go all the way through which is very dangerous and we are very worried about her because she is very determined. She is a very strong woman. She says she prefers to die than living in indignity.
**AMY GOODMAN**: We are going to leave it there. Guillermo Willie Toledo I want to thank you for being with us, famous Spanish actor who has been with Aminatou Haidar in the Canary Islands at the airport from the beginning. She is now entering her third week of a hunger fast, demanding to be able to go home to Western Sahara. Mouloud Said here in Washington representative of the Polisario Front and also Stephen Zunes.