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 home. Morocco has occupied most of Western Sahara since 1975. We go to the Lanzarote airport to speak with Spanish actor Guillermo "Willy" Toledo, who is at Haidar’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. [includes rush transcript]
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
AMY GOODMAN: We turn to a part of the world few Americans know about. 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 human rights activist named Aminatou Haidar was in New York to receive the 2009 Civil Courage Prize for her nonviolent 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 she 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 over two weeks ago. She demands 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 Almodóvar and actors Javier Bardem and Guillermo "Willy" Toledo.
We’re joined now by three guests. Yes, the actor Spanish — the actor Willy Toledo is with us on the line from inside the Lanzarote airport in the Spanish-controlled Canary Islands. He is next to Aminatou Haidar, who remains on hunger strike. He hasn’t left her side. Here in Washington, DC, I’m joined by Mouloud Said. He’s the Washington, DC representative of the Polisario, the Sahrawi independence movement. And from Mountain View, California, we’re joined by University of San Francisco Professor Stephen Zunes, 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 Stephen 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 a hunger strike.
STEPHEN ZUNES: What we’re looking at is a situation quite comparable to East Timor, in 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 United Nations Charter, international law, but because the 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 to the occupation and the right of self-determination have been ignored. And the people of Western Sahara initially took up arms to fight the Moroccans, but agreed to a ceasefire in 1991 in return for Moroccan promises of a referendum to determine the fate of the territory. But the Moroccans continually blocked that referendum from going forward. And 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 Said, you’re here in Washington, DC. Talk about where you see this struggle going and the significance of Aminatou’s hunger strike right now, what it means.
MOULOUD SAID: Good morning, Amy, and thank you very much for paying attention to this extremely sad situation. It’s really sad, what’s happening. It’s extremely sad that this happens in the twenty-first century, where all of us were so hopeful, after listening to President Obama at the United Nations last September, when he expressed his commitment to the human rights and his commitment to the right to every people, the right to self-determination. This is a clear case now for the US administration and the US President to show his commitment. This is the first time ever where an occupying power — where we had experiences in the past in Namibia, when it was occupied by South Africa, by the racist regime of South Africa. We had the experience with Indonesia, when they occupied East Timor. Never, ever a human rights activist was expelled from his own 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 — is extremely volatile. We have a woman who her life is in a limbo, for the only reason that she wants to be with her family. She has two children. They’re teenagers. She is in her forty-two years old — she’s forty-two years old. She already has experienced jail, disappearance and torture under Morocco for many years. She was blindfolded for four years in a Moroccan jail, where she was given for disappeared. And her only crime is to claim her right to the free expression, the right 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 that 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 in Spain against her own will.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to go right now to -—
MOULOUD SAID: Therefore we call on the international community — yes?
AMY GOODMAN: I want to go right now —-
MOULOUD SAID: Yes, sure.
AMY GOODMAN: —- to the Canary Islands, to Lanzarote airport, where the famous Spanish actor, Guillermo Toledo, Willy Toledo, is, who has been with Aminatou now for three weeks.
Willy 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 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 hunger strike of Aminatou Haidar. Me and many other people who are around Aminatou trying to give her message to all over the world, we are here because we are really fed up of our government, which is supposed to be a democratic government, who is traveling around the world speaking about human rights and democracy and civilizations, alliance and all that kind of empty words. And they show now that they were all empty words, because we don’t understand how a democratic country as Spain is on the side of a country like Morocco, torturing, disappearing people, getting people into secret jails for years and years. [inaudible] Aminatou was in a secret jail for four years. She already passed through a forty-five-days 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 right, and we are just fed up with all that situation, mostly because Western Sahara 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 I have to say that 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 hundreds — 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 since fifteen — sixteen days ago.
AMY GOODMAN: Aminatou, her condition, is there any chance she could come on the phone, Willy Toledo?
GUILLERMO TOLEDO: No, we tried. Today, the last — past two days, she has been very, very bad. Her situation has turned very critical. She can barely speak. She can no more walk. We have to try and transport her in a wheelchair. And she is sleeping in a very dirty and unhuman hole here in the airport, and she hasn’t tried no food since seventeen — sixteen days now. And she would like to say to all, to you, thank you very much for your interest. And she knew that she could trust many people in the United States of America who 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 or three, the medics and the doctors says that she is going to be maybe in an irreversible situation, health irreversible situation.
AMY GOODMAN: Her demands right now, Willy?
GUILLERMO TOLEDO: Her demands are — nowadays are 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 nonviolent 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 — and the law here in Spain, technically and legally, this was a kidnapped. She was forced to get in a plane. She was — her passport and documents were removed from her, which is illegal. She was forced to get in a plane, translated to another different country, which is Spain. And the Spanish government allowed her to get in the country without a passport, which is absolutely unusual. It never happened again — it never happened before in this country. So, she’s just saying around the world that this is an unjust situation that she has been involved in. And the Spanish government is taking part of that. The Spanish government is taking part on the side of the Moroccan country, which are violating her human rights — her human rights and all the Sahrawi people’s human rights. That’s the only demand she does: please, let them go back home.
AMY GOODMAN: The Nobel Prize winner for literature, José Saramago, is also with Aminatou?
GUILLERMO TOLEDO: Yes, he came this morning. He is a — you know, he is a very old man. He’s ninety-two years old. And she is also very weak and [inaudible]. He lives on the island, where we are. And he came this morning [inaudible] with her, and he did some statements [inaudible] he came here to support her.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re losing you. We’re talking to Guillermo Toledo, Willy 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 on the — with us here in Washington, DC, is Mouloud Said, who is a representative of the Polisario Front, and we’re with Stephen Zunes, who is writing a book on the Western Sahara.
Mouloud Said, the significance of Hillary Clinton, the Secretary of State, going to Morocco?
MOULOUD SAID: 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 — the Moroccan role in the human rights and the respect for human rights, they have been challenged by the facts, and they 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 they were traveling to London for their studies. Their passports were confiscated, and they lost their flight. We have some other six young Sahrawis that they were taken at the border with Mauritania. They’re right now in jail with no passports. So Aminatou is just the tip of the iceberg. And so, we believe that the timing of the statement by Mrs. Clinton, by Secretary of State Clinton, with all my due respect, the timing was wrong, and the place was wrong.
AMY GOODMAN: Let —-
MOULOUD SAID: I don’t think that anybody could see the way -— sorry, go ahead.
AMY GOODMAN: Let me put that question also to Professor Stephen Zunes in San Francisco — the role of Hillary Clinton? But also, you 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 United States has supported Morocco, seen initially as an important anti-communist ally in the region and more recently an important ally in the struggle against Islamic extremism. And as a result, they’re turning a blind eye to gross and systematic human rights violations by the Moroccan government in Western Sahara. In recent years, under the new king, things have liberalized a fair amount within Morocco itself, but in the Western Sahara it is the most brutal police state I’ve ever seen. I’ve been in the occupied territory.
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. And then she goes on to — seems to endorse this mediation process that Morocco’s been pushing to get this kind of phony autonomy for Western Sahara without granting the people of Western Sahara the right to — for the option of independence, which is required for all non-self-governing territories, this right. And if Morocco gets away with this so-called autonomy scheme, it’ll 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 the Moroccans to crack down further. There have been more arrests.
Then, of course, this deportation of Aminatou Haidar. And it’s 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 spokesman, could say was that he hoped for swift determination of Haidar’s status. He said nothing about Morocco’s legal obligations to allow her to return immediately. And this is very disappointing that when Haidar won the RFK 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 previous administrations of supporting Morocco’s illegal and repressive occupation.
AMY GOODMAN: Let me go back to Willy Toledo, in the airport. What are you calling for right now, as you are there with Aminatou in the Canary Islands?
GUILLERMO TOLEDO: Excuse me, what do you mean?
AMY GOODMAN: How do you think people can get involved?
GUILLERMO TOLEDO: Sorry, I didn’t hear the question. Could you please —-
AMY GOODMAN: How do you feel people can be involved in this issue, as you speak to us from the airport in the Canary Islands, where Aminatou is on the hunger strike?
GUILLERMO TOLEDO: Well, we are receiving lots of solidarity shows, and there are many people from the island, many people from the whole state, and many people from foreign countries that are coming and traveling over here. They’re coming from -— people from Austria, people from Brazil, people from England, people from France, from the United States. From right here there are two women from the Robert Kennedy Center spending the night with Aminatou. They have been here for the last three days. And actually, everybody — I think everybody is looking to Lanzarote, to the Canary Islands, to Aminatou Haidar, except for the Spanish government, who is trying to look to another side. But they will have to —- they will have to give us a response. They will have to give Aminatou some solution, because days are passing by, and her health is getting critical and more critical every day. So she is very happy about the -—
AMY GOODMAN: Is she fasting to the death?
GUILLERMO TOLEDO: Sorry?
AMY GOODMAN: Is she fasting to the death?
GUILLERMO TOLEDO: She is fasting to the death, yes. She is very determined with that. She’s the — that is the struggle, the struggle she decided to put on. And she is very decided to hunger strike until death. And if anybody knows Aminatou Haidar — I know her since a long time ago — we are sure that 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. And she said that she prefers to die than living in indignity.
AMY GOODMAN: We are going to leave it there. Guillermo "Willy" Toledo, I want to thank you for being with us, a famous Spanish actor who has been with Aminatou Haidar in the Canary Islands at the airport from the beginning. She is now entering the 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, though I’d like to ask you, Professor Zunes, to stay with us to get a quick comment from you after break on Afghanistan, this major day with President Obama about to give an address tonight to the nation.