Activist On Hunger Strike At Canary Islands' Airport

A human rights campaigner who supports independence for Western Sahara is at the center of a diplomatic row between Spain and Morocco. Aminatou Haidar was refused entry to Morocco nearly a month ago, and deported to the Spanish Canary Islands, were she began a hunger strike. Doctors say Haidar's life is now in severe danger.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Now to a protest against Morocco's occupation of the Western Sahara and a peace activist on a hunger strike who is now at the center of a drama unfolding at an airport on an archipelago off the coast of Africa. Jerome Socolovsky reports that her case has become a cause c�l�bre.

JEROME SOCOLOVSKY: Aminatou Haidar had just received a human rights award in New York and was returning home last month to the city of La�youne in the occupied Western Sahara when she refused to state her nationality as Moroccan. Moroccan police confiscated her passport and deported her to Spain's Canary Islands.

Since then, the 43-year-old's mother has been on a hunger strike at Lanzarote Airport, taking only sweetened water. Doctors say her health is deteriorating quickly.

(Soundbite of applause)

SOCOLOVSKY: A few days ago, she emerged in a wheelchair wearing her traditional veil and gave a press conference.

Ms. AMINATOU HAIDAR: (Foreign language spoken)

SOCOLOVSKY: I demand to be allowed back to the Western Sahara, with or without a passport, alive or dead, she said.

Morocco says Haidar can only come back if she recognizes its claim to sovereignty over the territory. Moroccan officials accuse her of being an agent of pro-independence rebels. Western Sahara is a former Spanish colony. In 1976, Spain let Morocco take it over, despite having promised to hold a referendum on independence. Since then the dispute over the mineral-rich territory has gotten little international attention outside of Spain, where many people feel their country sold out the Western Saharan people, the Sahrawis.

(Soundbite of music)

SOCOLOVSKY: Hardly a day goes by in Spain without a concert or demonstration in support of the Sahrawi Gandhi, as she's called here. Writers and movie stars, such as actor Willie Toledo, have been harshly critical of Spain's socialist government.

Mr. WILLIE TOLEDO (Actor): (Foreign language spoken)

SOCOLOVSKY: It's wrong that a government that calls itself leftist and democratic is subverting human rights to economic interests, he said. It's shameful.

Despite casting himself as a champion of human rights, Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero has been reluctant to confront Morocco. He has said that Spain's general interests should prevail.

For NPR News, I'm Jerome Socolovsky in Madrid.

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