(New York) - Morocco must reverse its expulsion of Sahrawi rights activist Aminatou Haidar and allow her to enter her country of nationality, Human Rights Watch said today. Spain must intercede with Morocco to ensure her return, Human Rights Watch added.
Morocco refused Haidar, who is president of the Collective of Sahrawi Human Rights Defenders (CODESA), re-entry into Moroccan-controlled Western Sahara and forced her onto a flight to Spain on November 14 after she listed her place of residence as "Western Sahara" on a border control form. Haidar holds Moroccan citizenship and was traveling on a Moroccan passport. Morocco claims the former Spanish colony as part of Morocco, whereas many Sahrawis, including Haidar, reject Morocco's claim in the absence of a referendum on self-determination.
The expulsion of Haidar comes at a time of mounting repression by Morocco of peaceful activism by advocates of self-determination for Western Sahara.
"Morocco cannot summarily denaturalize and deport its own citizens because of the way they fill out entry forms at the airport," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. "They must let Haidar return home and stop harassing her for peaceful advocacy of Sahrawi self-determination."
Moroccan Foreign Minister Taïeb Fassi Fihri said on November 15 that Haidar, who was returning from a trip abroad November 13, effectively "waived" her Moroccan citizenship by writing "Western Sahara" as her place of residence on her entry form. Haidar refused to back down when senior officials, including a security commissioner for the region and a crown prosecutor, came to the airport and warned her of the consequences of her actions.
Police detained Haidar at the airport overnight, then confiscated her passport and national identity card before putting her on a plane to Arrecife in the Canary Islands (Spain), where she is presently on a hunger strike at Lanzarote airport demanding the right to return to her homeland.
The United Nations classifies Western Sahara as a "non-self-governing territory" and does not recognize de jure Moroccan sovereignty over it. Morocco has proposed regional autonomy for Western Sahara under Moroccan rule, a solution rejected by the Polisario, the Sahrawi independence movement based in Algeria, which favors a vote on self-determination that could lead to independence for the territory.
Meanwhile, Morocco administers the contested territory as if it were part of Morocco. This includes the issuance of Moroccan passports to its residents, few of whom have access to any other form of travel documents. Haidar has no other passport.
Article 12 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which Morocco has ratified, states in part, "Everyone shall be free to leave any country, including his own.... No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of the right to enter his own country."
Moroccan authorities have the right to require all persons entering territory under their control to provide certain information and answer questions. However, to summarily confiscate a passport and expel a citizen for filling out her address in a way that displeases authorities is a punishment that is both excessive and politically motivated. Such measures should be undertaken - if at all - as part of a procedure where the concerned party's due process rights are fully respected. If authorities consider that Haidar has committed an infraction of the law, they should grant her entry and allow her to reside at her home while they pursue their investigation.
Spain, meanwhile, shares in responsibility for the impasse because it admitted Haidar into its territory even though she arrived against her will and carried no passport, and because Spain's foreign ministry has reportedly said she cannot leave Spain because she lacks a passport.
Given that Spanish authorities are aware of the arbitrary way that Morocco confiscated Haidar's documents and expelled her, Spain should allow her to exercise her stated wish to board a flight from Spain to El-Ayoun, and thereby exercise her rights under article 12 of the ICCPR.
"Spain should avoid complicity in Morocco's repressive behavior," said Whitson. "It should let Haidar return to the land of her citizenship."
CODESA, the human rights organization over which Haidar presides, has seen its legal registration blocked arbitrarily by Moroccan authorities, who allege that its leaders espouse the cause of Sahrawi independence and are therefore in violation of Moroccan laws prohibiting "attacks" on Morocco's "territorial integrity." Haidar's trip abroad included a stopover in New York to receive the Train Foundation's Civil Courage Prize, one of many awards Haidar has received from international organizations.
The expulsion of Haidar, a 42-year-old mother of two, is an unprecedented measure but only one of several acts of repression against Sahrawi activists carried out by the Moroccan government since October. King Mohammed VI of Morocco announced the new hard-line approach in his speech November 6 marking the 34th anniversary of "the Green March," Morocco's entry into Western Sahara to claim its control over it:
Let me clearly say there is no more room for ambiguity or deceit: either a person is Moroccan or is not. There can be no more duplicity or evading of duties. Now is the time for clear, unambiguous stances, and for responsible conduct. One is either a patriot or a traitor. There is no halfway house. One cannot enjoy the rights and privileges of citizenship, only to abuse them and conspire with the enemies of the homeland.
On October 6, Moroccan police prevented five Sahrawi activists from leaving Western Sahara for Mauritania, confiscating their passports and sending them back to El-Ayoun, without providing an official reason for the measure. Other Sahrawi activists have been barred from traveling abroad, including Sultana Khaya on October 10 and students Hayat Rguibi and Nguiya Hawassi, who were turned back November 18 at Casablanca airport as they prepared to depart for Great Britain.
On October 8, the security services arrested seven Sahrawis upon their return from visiting the Tindouf refugee camps in Algeria where, Moroccan authorities allege, they met with "bodies opposing Morocco," presumably a reference to Polisario leaders. The pro-government press accused the seven of also meeting with Algerian security officials. The judge investigating their case has referred it to a military court, a rare and ominous development for civilians accused of politically motivated offenses.
On at least seven occasions since October 19, police have interrupted visits by foreign human rights delegations or journalists to the homes of known Sahrawi activists, informing them that from now on, all such visits must receive prior authorization.
Haidar, reached by telephone on November 17, said that she frequently filled out the entry form at El-Ayoun airport in the same way in the past without being detained or questioned. This time, however, she sensed trouble upon deplaning on November 13 because of the heavier-than-usual security presence at this small and normally quiet airport. Haidar said that as soon as she handed in the entry form, the police took her aside for what ended up being 12 hours of questioning on topics ranging from her views on the Western Sahara conflict to her various activities during her month-long trip abroad. Haidar said that while she refused to change how she had completed the form, she made no statement renouncing Moroccan citizenship. When the questioning ended, she signed a written record of it and was informed that the police would keep her passport and national identity card and that she was being placed on the next flight to Spain.
"Morocco needs to find a solution to the crisis they have provoked by expelling Aminatou Haidar because of her political beliefs," said Whitson. "And that solution must involve allowing Haidar to return home and ending the current crackdown on Sahrawis who peacefully espouse the cause of self-determination."