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Morocco now ruling disputed desert region with gentler hand

Morocco now ruling disputed desert region with gentler hand

It came as something as a surprise to Aminatou Haidar when Moroccan authorities finally relented and filled her request for a passport. They had kept her waiting for 17 years.
Haidar is from Western Sahara, a bone-dry territory on Africa's northwest coast, slightly smaller than Italy. Morocco claims sovereignty over the largely unpopulated area. Haidar sees the Moroccans as occupiers and has paid for her anti-Moroccan activism with lengthy imprisonments.
The struggle over Western Sahara has gone on with scant international notice. Moroccan authorities have not been accustomed to allowing partisans such as Haidar go abroad. But that is now changing and Haidar, armed with her passport, has been telling the story of the Saharawi people, as Western Saharans are known, in Europe and the United States.
"I was in a secret prison for three years and seven months," Haidar said in a recent interview here, alluding to her 1987-91 incarceration. "We never went before a judge. We had no communication with the rest of the world. Our families did not have any news about our whereabouts."
"For all this time I was blindfolded. They only took it off four days before my release. The first three weeks it was a nonstop interrogation and beating. We had nothing. We just slept on the bare floor with a small blanket. We had no right to showers. There were all kinds of parasites."
Haidar was imprisoned for her activism a second time in June 2005. She said she was confined to an isolation cell with neither fresh air nor light, her head injuries untreated. In some ways, however, her imprisonment was more humane than the first time. "My family at least knew where I was and could visit me," she said. "I wasn't blindfolded, and at least I was taken before a judge."
Haidar was released from prison last January after seven months. Her subsequent receipt of a passport, obtained with an assist from Amnesty International, reflected a more tolerant attitude of King Mohammed VI and his government toward Western Saharan dissidents.
Haidar, 39, sat for the interview dressed in a flowing gown typical of her region. She smiled often and showed little bitterness about her ordeal. Between stints in prison she earned a degree in modern literature and had two children, now aged 12 and 10.
She came to Washington to accept a "freedom award" from the Defense Forum Foundation, a conservative group.
"I go wherever I can to explain the violation of human rights in Western Sahara," she said. "The leading power is the United States. I can't go to other places without coming to the U.S. to explain."
Morocco, citing historic claims, assumed control of the Western Sahara after Spanish rule ended in 1975. Polisario Front rebels, a pro-independence group backed by Cuba, fought a 12-year guerrilla war against forces loyal to the monarchy. The United Nations brokered a truce in 1991 but the continued presence of Polisario militants at camps in neighboring Algeria makes clear that the conflict persists.
Morocco recognizes that change is needed in the region. It wants to grant autonomy to the territory, with an elected governor and legislature but with Rabat retaining strict sovereignty. A transition plan is being drawn up by a special advisory council known as Corcas.
The secretary general of the council, Khalli Henna Ould Errachid, a native Western Saharan loyal to Rabat, led a delegation here last week to explain the plan to senior administration officials. In an interview, he said peaceful dissidents in Western Sahara no longer need fear reprisals.
Haidar's freedom to travel internationally and to return home, he added, offer "proof that Morocco respects human rights." Moroccan Ambassador Aziz Mekaour said Haidar's presence in the United States "is just one small example of how things have changed."
The reform agenda of King Mohammed VI goes well beyond Western Sahara. Last year, he created the Equity and Reconciliation Commission, which exposed abuses committed against Moroccans under the 38-year rule of his father, King Hassan II. Reparations were paid to thousands of victims, Western Saharans included.
In addition, Moroccans now boast a lively press, a vibrant civil society and women freed from constraints common in other Arab societies. Moroccans also have held relatively free municipal and parliamentary elections.
There will be no elections in Western Sahara to decide its future status. Rabat says the territory will forever be Moroccan.
As Haidar sees it, the Saharawi people, and not Rabat, should "decide whether they want to be a part of Morocco or independent. Whatever the people choose."


Updated : 2021-04-11 03:25 GMT+08:00