23 October – Aminatou Haidar, Saharawi Human Rights Activist speaks at forum

The Congressional Defense and Foreign Policy Forum was co-hosted by the Defense Forum Foundation and the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice & Human Rights.
FRIDAY, OCTOBER 23, 2009, 12:00 P.M.

Transcript by
Federal News Service
Washington, D.C.

SUZANNE SCHOLTE:  Good afternoon.  If I could have your attention, please?  I’m Suzanne Scholte, the president of the Defense Forum Foundation, and it’s a great pleasure to welcome you to today’s forum with Aminatou Haidar, this year’s recipient of the Civil Courage Prize, last year’s winner of the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Human Rights Award, and I also might add, the recipient of the Defense Forum Foundation’s Freedom Award back in 2006.

I have worked in human rights issues for nearly 30 years, and I have never met a more remarkable people than the Sahrawis of Western Sahara or a more just cause than what they seek: the simple right to vote on their future.  Having been invaded by their neighbor, they have for 35 years sought self-determination first promised by Spain, affirmed by the International Court of Justice in 1975 and then promised once again by the United Nations in 1991.

The Sahrawi have relied on the rule of law, the justness of their cause.  And despite the atrocities and injustices committed against them every day by Moroccan authorities, they have worked through peaceful, non-violent means to press their cause.  Even today, seven Sahrawi human rights defenders are in terrible danger because they were arrested at Casablanca earlier this month after returning from a visit to the refugee camps.  Their very arrest sends a chilling message to human rights defenders around the world, and is absolutely unheard of, unprecedented, that they would be tried before a Moroccan military court, which is what they are facing.

This is a test by Morocco of our resolve – how will we respond?  There’s a letter that our foundation recently sent to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.  But I want to urge all of you, especially those of you with members of Congress, to send letters to the king of Morocco calling for the immediate release of these seven Sahrawi human rights defenders.

Now, before beginning the program, I do want to acknowledge the special guest that we have, and especially our co-host for today’s forum.  From the diplomatic community, it’s a great pleasure to welcome the ambassador of Algeria, Abdallah Baali.  (Applause.)  Dear friend to many of us, my brother, Ambassador Mouloud Said of the Sahrawi Republic.  (Applause.)  The Sahrawi Republic’s ambassador to the United Nations, Ahmed Boukhari.  (Applause.)

I’ve been actively involved in this issue since 1993, and it’s been a very long struggle.  Those of you who have been involved in this know that.  But a man who’s inspired me more than he knows is also here today from Norway.  His group is one of the best on action and information on this issue.  And sometimes just getting his news and his updates has kept me inspired.  So it’s a great honor to have Ronny Hansen of the Norwegian Support Committee for Western Sahara.  Ronny, if you could stand up.  (Applause.)  And if you’re not on his e-mail list, make sure you get on it.  (Laughter.)

Now, also from the Defense Forum Foundation, we have the former deputy chairman of the U.N. peacekeeping operation in Western Sahara who is beloved by the Sahrawi and many others because he blew the whistle on the Moroccan obstruction of the referendum.  He’s never stopped speaking out on this issue.  He continues to write about this, and just recently had a letter to the editor published in The Washington Times on Western Sahara.  He’s also, I’m very pleased  and very honored to say on our board of directors.  And that’s Ambassador Frank Ruddy.  (Applause.)

Another member of our board of directors who’s our vice chairman is Ty McCoy who’s been a great friend to me and a wise counselor and encourager on all of our work as we’ve done more and more on defense foreign affairs and human rights issues.  Ty McCoy.  (Applause.)

And also our director of projects and grants, back there, Henry Song.  (Applause.)  We also have with us Barbara Becker of EqualShot who’s been working on the Civil Courage Prize Committee events, organizing meetings and accompanying Ms. Haidar for both of her events in New York and in Washington, D.C.,  Barbara.  (Applause.)

I also want to acknowledge, especially for someone like me that does not speak Arabic, that Senia Abderahman – and I know I’m pronouncing your last name wrong.  But I want to acknowledge Senia who’s been translating and who’s just done a wonderful job translating for Aminatou Haidar for her meetings.  If you could just stand. (Applause.)

And perhaps most important, I want to recognize our co-host today, Marselha Margerin.  Marselha, if you could stand.  (Applause.)  And Boi-Tia Stevens – Boi-Tia is right here – (applause ) – of the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights.  It’s been just wonderful to be able to co-host this event with them and to work with them on this issue.

To me, the selection of Aminatou Haidar for the Robert F. Kennedy Award will be seen in the future textbooks of the Sahrawi Republic as a turning point in their history because when this group recognizes you, they also become your partner.  And this will change everything to have the Robert F. Kennedy Center as advocates for self-determination and human rights for Western Sahara.

I’m going to ask Boi-Tia to describe some of the work that the center is doing on behalf of this cause.  Boi-Tia.

BOI-TIA STEVENS:  Thank you very much, Suzanne.  Every year, the Robert F. Kennedy Center selects an individual whose courageous activism is at the heart of a human rights movement, and in the spirit of Bobby Kennedy’s vision for a better world and a more peaceful world.

As Suzanne indicated, in 2008, the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award recipient was Ms. Aminatou Haidar.  Aminatou was recognized because of her peaceful and tenacious struggle against Moroccan control of her country and human rights abuses against her people the indigenous people of Western Sahara, the Sahrawis.  Since 2008, the Robert F. Kennedy Center entered into a partnership with Ms. Aminatou Haidar, and our work primarily focuses on advocating on human rights issues which are Aminatou’s cause as well.

We advocate on Capitol Hill and in the United Nations as well on three main areas:  One, the registration of human rights organizations in Western Sahara, specifically CODESA, which is Aminatou’s organization, realizing that Morocco has denied the right for these organizations to register.

The second area in which we focus is political prisoners. There are a number of prisoners languishing in jails and prisons in Morocco and Western Sahara because of the views on the issue of self-determination and other human rights issues.  And our goal is to seek favorable detention conditions for them and their eventual release.

The third area in which we focus on is the creation of a human rights mechanism in the region which would monitor and report on human rights abuses, both in Western Sahara and in the camps in Algeria.  Our belief is that if there is a human rights mechanism that is present on the ground, it would aid tremendously in curbing human rights abuses against the Sahrawi people.

In the next few months and weeks and years, we will be knocking on your door as we continue with our advocacy work on behalf of Aminatou’s cause.  But today, we will let Aminatou speak and tell you what is going on in Western Sahara.  Thank you.  (Applause.)

MS. SCHOLTE:  Now we are very blessed to have the founder of the Civil Courage Prize, and the chairman of the Civil Courage Prize Committee, who traveled here from New York for purposes of introducing our speaker.   I mentioned that I believe the involvement of the Robert F. Kennedy Center on this issue will be pivotal.  But I also believe that the awarding of the Civil Courage Prize will be life-saving.  Giving this award and further raising the statue of our heroine, Aminatou Haidar, will help protect her life and her noble work, because when she leaves the USA to return to occupied Western Sahara, her life and her work will once again be in danger.  I am so grateful to John Train and the Civil Courage Prize trustees for their acknowledging Aminatou Haidar for her steadfast resistance to evil at great personal risk.  And it is a great honor to now turn this program over to Mr. John Train.  Thank you for being here, Mr. Train.  (Applause.)

JOHN TRAIN:  Thank you, Suzanne.  I’m honored to be here, and I’m honored that you asked me to speak.  Your Excellencies, the trustees of the Defense Forum Foundation, ladies and gentlemen, the few words I can say about Aminatou Haidar will not compare with what she will tell you herself.  So I won’t go into great length.  But the purpose of our prize is to recognize steadfast resistance to evil at great personal risk.

Now, what is evil?  Most people know it when they see it, so we don’t try and define it.  But it’s very, very bad things.  My foundation is not politically active.  That’s the work of the RFK Foundation, as we recognize people.  We are politically neutral.  And one of our objectives is, as Suzanne said, that receiving this recognition, which Aminatou has very much deserved, that receiving this award protects the recipient to some extent, particularly since we are apolitical.

We do of course agree with Aminatou’s political position that the Moroccans should, of course, grant the freedom to vote – let the people speak.  That’s the position of the United Nations and the position of the United States.  We also want to recognize that the Defense Forum Foundation nominated her for our reward, a very, very successful choice for which we are grateful.

One final thing:  Someone in this room may save her life, and I’ll tell you how this could come about.  She has a very distinct fear of being arrested in the airport as she returns to her country.  She’s been in jail before this and she’s been threatened and spent a lot of time in jail  – and disappeared.  And if one of you could ask one of your senators or representative to ask our mission out there to send a car out to pick her up, that would very likely get her through without serious risk.

Anyway, thank you for listening to me.  (Applause.)

(Note:  Ms. Haidar’s remarks are delivered via translator.)
AMINATOU HAIDAR:    Good afternoon.  Honorable ladies and gentlemen, please allow me to welcome all of you and to welcome and thank members of the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Human Rights and the Defense Forum Foundation for this honorable opportunity, for their continual support on the Saharawi’s struggle, their just struggle for freedom and dignity.

Please allow me to also thank Mr. Train for coming to participate in this supportive luncheon.  I would also like to take this opportunity to say that I’m honored that his foundation, the Train Foundation, has given me the Civil Courage Prize.  This prize would be the third prize I received in the United States, and the first prize I received is the Freedom Award from the Defense Forum Foundation, which was the first opportunity for me to come to the United States.  And the second prize, which is a prestigious prize, is the Robert Kennedy Prize for 2008.

Honorable guests, in a deliberate violation of the international law, Morocco invaded Western Sahara on the day of 31st of October in 1975.  This illegal occupation has hindered the Sahrawi people to exercise their legitimate right to self-determination which has been recognized by the United Nations since 1966.  Alongside the military invasion, the Moroccan authorities have exercised policies of collective punishment to the Sahrawi people, including bombing with phosphorus and throwing people from helicopters and burying them alive in groups – in massive graves.

This led the Sahrawi people to flee their home country.  This led to thousands of Sahrawi to flee their home countries to find a safe haven.  And so after 34 years, they still live in refugee camps in Tindouf in Southern Algeria under horrible humanitarian conditions and completely dependent on humanitarian aid.

Meanwhile, the rest of the Sahrawi population lives under occupation and face human rights violations in the form of torture, arrest and disappearances by the Moroccan security forces, this without taking into consideration the age or gender.  These forced disappearance have been experienced by men and women and especially pregnant women and underage children.  The period of their disappearance have ranged from six months to 16 years under unknown conditions.

Ladies and gentlemen, I personally have faced disappearance at a young age.  As a 20-year-old, my life all of a sudden stopped.  I found myself in November of 1987 under torture in a secret location with my eyes covered, with complete isolation from the outside world or being tried.  And I faced physical and psychological torture and many conditions that I will not be able to express in a few minutes.

Many of my companions have died due to the torture and the horrible conditions in prisons.  We still demand and ask for the fate of over 500 disappeared – Sahrawis disappeared whose fate is still unknown, in addition to 15 other youth who have been arrested, who disappeared in 2005.

Honorable guests, the human right violations committed by the Moroccan government against the Sahrawi people are not part of the history but still continue today.  As I speak now, many people are facing repression and violation against their basic rights.  And children are facing discrimination and torture, and women are facing torture and sexual harassment by taking pictures of them naked and the Moroccan authorities threaten to publish these pictures on the Internet to pressure them psychologically.  And the latest case is the case of the seven arrested human rights defenders.

Honorable ladies and gentlemen, the (Moroccan) actions are against all of the international human right conventions.  These are clear violations of human rights by the Moroccan government against the Sahrawi people because of the Sahrawis’ views on the Western Sahara issue and their peaceful struggle and resistance asking for the right to self-determination.

On October 8th 2009, the Moroccan government arrested seven Sahrawi human rights defenders who are Ali Salem Tamek, Brahim Dahane, Ms. Dagja Lachgar, Ahmed Anasari and others in the Casablanca Airport in Morocco when they were coming from Houari Boumediene Airport from Algeria after visiting the Sahrawi refugee camps.  They were interrogated by the Moroccan security forces for eight days, and they were put in the local prison of Seleh (ph) in Morocco awaiting their fate to be put before a military court in the Moroccan capital of Rabat.

They may face the death penalty or life imprisonment according to the Moroccan law due to the made-up accusations against them.  On the date of the 5th of this month, the Moroccan authorities stopped five human rights defenders in the border with Mauritania, and these people include Sidi Mohammed Dadach and others who were prevented from traveling to Mauritania after being maltreated and facing interrogation for seven hours.

They confiscated all of their personal documents including their passport, national ID, and their drivers’ licenses.  For this they are in a legal situation with no documents and under house arrest.  And this takes place as part of a campaign that the Moroccan high officials in the Moroccan government are doing, including the minister of interior and the foreign minister.  They utilize all of the political parties and media outlets against the Sahrawi human right defenders and against the Sahrawi people who fight for the right to self-determination to silence their free voices.

Honorable ladies and gentlemen, at this moment, there are about 40 Sahrawi political prisoners in prison in Moroccan prisons and the black prison in Morocco.  And most of them are taking part in an open hunger strike
and they are in horrible conditions.  For this as a human right defender, I also face the threat of being arrested when I return or being under house arrest.

I would like to state that on the human rights situation in Western Sahara that international silence encourages the Moroccan government to again put people before military courts and under house arrest.  I therefore ask members of the Congress and the Senate, civil society and international human rights organizations, and all of the people involved in establishing peace and understanding in the world, to take an action immediately, to protect the Sahrawi people and especially human rights defenders and ask for the release of the seven human right defenders and all of the Sahrawi political prisoners.

I also ask to put forward a mechanism to protect the human rights and expand the mandate of the MINURSO to include the protection of human rights.  And I ask the Moroccan government to abide by the (recommendations in) reports from organizations and international institutions that have visited the Western Sahara such as the U.N. Human Right Commission, the European Parliament, Amnesty International, Human Rights International, Front Line and so on, and to immediately find a solution that would end the suffering of the Sahrawi people and uphold their right to self-determination.  Thank you very much.  (Applause.)

MS. SCHOLTE: We have some time for some questions.  If we could ask the congressional staff – I know there are some reporters here – because the congressional staff have a limited time, if we could take the questions from the congressional staff, and then if any people from the media who want to visit with her afterwards, we’ll have time afterwards.  Is there any questions from congressional staff?  And if you could identify your name and the office that you’re with or the committee that you’re with.  Yes, ma’am.  I can identify you!  (Laughter.)

Q:  Kerry McKinney with Congressman Donald Payne.  I just wanted to ask what you’re doing with the U.N. lately and what their response has been.

MS. HAIDAR:  Politically when it comes to human rights in 2006, the U.N. Human Right Commission sent a delegation to look at the situation.  They confirmed that the human rights violations are due to the lack of respect for the Sahrawi people’s right to self-determination.  And among the request they put forward was to put a mechanism to protect and to investigate the human rights violations.  However, the U.N. Human Rights Commission Report on the human rights situation was never put forward and none of the requests have been abided to.  They also asked the U.N. Security General to investigate the human rights situation.  And for the first time they included in their report the human rights dimension in the mandate.  However, this has been rejected  – it was not included in the report that was sent before the Security Council, and that’s obvious because of France who did not allow that to happen.

MS. SCHOLTE:  Other questions.  (Inaudible, off mike.)

Q:  (Inaudible, off mike.)  The Moroccan government often says that the fact that you’re in Morocco as a human rights activist is evidence that there is freedom there.  Could you just respond to that.

MS. HAIDAR:  The response perhaps was given by the Moroccan government on October 8th by arresting the seven human rights defenders after visiting their families in the refugee camps in Algeria, and also by preventing the five human rights defenders from traveling to Mauritania.  And I personally did not get a passport until 2005.  And I’ve been threatened several times that my documents would be confiscated and I may return to jail.

Q:  Yeah, my name is Mohammed Sayid – (inaudible).  I’m a Moroccan.  Am I allowed to ask a question?

MS. SCHOLTE:  Actually, it’s just congressional staff.

Q:  Yeah, I’m a member of – (inaudible, off mike).

MS. SCHOLTE:  Congressional staff is what I –

Q:  No, I’m not going to be offended.  I’ll be fair.

MS. SCHOLTE:  We’re going to have time afterwards.  Really, this is for –

Q:  In Arabic or in English?

MS. SCHOLTE: The Q&A was for congressional staff, as I said at the beginning because they have to leave shortly but we have time afterwards for people in the press to ask questions.  (Applause.)  Congressional staff members?  Any other questions ..yes.

Q:  I just have a quick question.  (Inaudible, off mike.)  I just wondered if – she’s been able to meet with Ambassador – (inaudible) [Christoffer Ross] – and how her story has been received.

MS. HAIDAR:  No, I did not meet with him.

MS. SCHOLTE:  Sen. Inhofe has an announcement and afterwards we will have time for people who want to interview her with the media.  I thank all of the congressional staff for attending today.  And hold on, we have two more announcements.  I’m sorry?

Q:  Is it possible to stay on mike while we – the press can ask questions.

MS. SCHOLTE:  Yeah, but what we’re going to do  – we could have her come back up, but we need to let the Congressional staff go and we need to finish up the program.  We have a couple of quick announcements
before people need to leave to get back to their offices.  (Applause.)

Joel, right?  This is Joel Starr with Sen. Inhofe’s office that wanted to make an announcement.

JOEL STARR:  Thank you very much, Suzanne.  I appreciate it.  Nice to meet you.  Hello.  I’m Joel Starr from Sen. Inhofe’s office.  And Ms. Haidar visited with Sen. Inhofe yesterday and told her about the situation in Western Sahara, and specifically about the people who were detained at the airport that she just spoke about and have been incarcerated and were convicted in a military tribunal.
She so inspired Sen. Inhofe that he got on the horn last night and contacted Senators Issakson and DeMint, and we cranked out a letter last night and we’ve actually just it to the Moroccan ambassador – it’s addressed to the king – just this morning.  And I wanted to read you just a quick excerpt of it.

“Dear King Mohammed, We’re writing to express our concern for the arrest of the seven Sahrawi human rights activists who were detained on October 8th, 2009, at the airport.  The seven human rights activists have been involved in peaceful efforts to raise the issues of the Sahrawi people through their various organizations.  It is disconcerting to see that these civilians detained – were detained and placed before a military court for exercising their right of freedom of expression.”

And it ends by saying, “For over 30 years, the conflict over the Western Sahara have gone unresolved.  There have been negotiations.  It is our hope that a resolution will be reached in the near future.

On October 9, 2009, in a statement to President Obama, you said, quote, ‘My county always supports your efforts to uphold the universal values of freedom, democracy, solidarity, justice and brotherhood, and to promote the lofty ideals of human rights to which both our peoples are deeply committed,’ end quote.  We commend you in these efforts and we hope that you will apply them specifically to the Sahrawis.  We would like to ask you to release the human rights activists, and in doing so, uphold your commitments to human rights for all people.”  Signed Sen. Inhofe, the ranking member of the East Asian and Pacific Committee on the Senate Foreign Relations; Johnny Isaskson, a ranking member on the Subcommittee on African Affairs; and Jim DeMint, the subcommittee ranking member on European Affairs.  (Applause.)

MS. SCHOLTE:  A couple of other quick announcements.  There are handouts — a letter feel free to pick up and take a copy – that we sent to Secretary Clinton.  There’s also the remarks that Aminatou made at the Civil Courage Award ceremony and in their newsletter that’s available to everyone.

And I highly encourage – I highly encourage those of you with members of Congress to encourage your members to go to the refugee camps, but also to visit occupied Western Sahara.  I really feel that if we can get a delegation of members of Congress to go to this area, it’s going to – it will change everything.

And it’s been really difficult to – I know Sen. Inhofe went into the camps some years ago.  I don’t know if he’s been to the occupied territory.  But I think that for members of Congress that to do that, it will be really powerful.  I know a lot of you have been on our staff trips with congressional staff, just to be able to learn about it and see the situation first hand.  It makes a huge difference.

Thank you, everybody, for coming today.  I want to announce that our next forum is going to be Friday, November 13th, with Dr. Shiyu Zhou, who is the head of the Global Internet Freedom Consortium.  His topic is going to be “Tearing Down the Cyber Wall, How Chinese American Human Rights Activists are Changing the Global Internet Landscape.”

This is the group that’s behind breaking down the censorship in China.  It will be a very powerful forum.  The software they develop could have ramifications through any country that has Internet access where the government is trying to block the people from being able to have access to the Internet, specifically China, Iran and other countries.  So I hope you’ll join us November 13th.  Thank you all for being here today.  (Applause.)

For further background, see also:
US Senate: US senators ask King to release Sahrawis US Senate: US senators ask King to release Sahrawis , Oct 24, 2009
Amnesty International: Morocco/Western Sahara: Sahrawi activists targeted for Tindouf visit , 13 October 2009
Frontline Defenders: Morocco / Western Sahara: Abduction of seven human rights defenders in Casablanca , Oct 10, 2009
RFK Center urges Moroccan Authorities to Ensure Due Process of 7 Arrested Sahrawi Advocates,   Oct 10, 2009
Press release: Aminatou Haidar wins 2009 Civil Courage Prize (USA) <../group/Sahara-Update/message/2139> , Aug 20, 2009