For Immediate Release, September 10, 2009
Contact: Barbara Becker, EqualShot, 212-375-0661
Western Sahara Human Rights Defender wins 10th Annual Civil Courage Prize
Aminatou Haidar to be honored for her campaign on behalf of the self-determination of Western Sahara and against government abuses and disappearances of prisoners of conscience
New York, NY — Aminatou Haidar, a Sahrawi human rights defender struggling for the right to self-determination of Western Sahara, will receive the 2009 Civil Courage Prize in New York on October 20. The Prize of $50,000 honors individuals who have demonstrated steadfast resistance to evil at great personal risk.
Ms. Haidar is being recognized for her courageous campaign for self-determination of Western Sahara from its occupation by Morocco and against forced disappearances and abuses of prisoners of conscience. Regularly referred to as the "Sahrawi Gandhi," Ms. Haidar is one of Western Sahara's most prominent human rights defenders.
Once a Spanish colony, Western Sahara has been under strict military control by the Kingdom of Morocco since its invasion in 1975. The region has experienced an extended conflict between Moroccan military and the Sahrawi independence organization, the Polisario Front. In response to the International Court of Justice's rejection of Morocco's claims of sovereignty in the region, the Polisario Front, in 1976, proclaimed the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) as Western Sahara's legitimate government.
In 1988, the kingdom of Morocco and the Polisario Front agreed to settle the dispute through a UN-administered referendum that would allow the people of Western Sahara to choose between independence or integration with Morocco. The vote still has not been held. A UN-administered ceasefire has been in place since 1991. In 2007, the United Nations began facilitating peace talks between Morocco and the Polisario Front, but talks have stalled over disagreements, including who qualifies to participate in the potential referendum and whether full independence is an option for Sahrawis.
Ms. Haidar is part of a younger generation of Sahrawi leaders working through non-violent means to organize peaceful demonstrations in support of the referendum and to denounce the human rights abuses on both sides of the conflict. Her peaceful efforts have been met with increased police aggression and brutality. In 1987, at the age of 21, Ms. Haidar was one of 700 peaceful protestors arrested for participating in a rally in support of a referendum. Later she was "disappeared" without charge or trial and held in secret detention centers for four years, where she and 17 other Sahrawi women were tortured. In 2005, the Moroccan police detained and beat her after another peaceful demonstration. She was released after 7 months, thanks to international pressure from groups like Amnesty International and the European Parliament.
Since then Ms. Haidar has traveled the globe to expose the Moroccan military's heavy-handed approach and to plead for the Sahrawi people
s right to self determination. Her efforts helped change the Moroccan government's violent tactics for dispersing pro-independence demonstrations. Unfortunately, the torture and harassment of Sahrawi human rights defenders continue behind closed doors.
Commenting on receiving the Civil Courage Prize, Aminatou Haidar said:
"The Sahrawi embrace universal values such as democracy, human rights, religious tolerance, and equality of women, yet our struggle is not very well-known. The Civil Courage Prize represents important recognition of the contribution of just one of many to the Sahrawi people's striving for freedom and independence."
Commenting on Aminatou Haidar's award, John Train, founder of the Prize, said:
"The Civil Courage Prize exists to recognize heroes of conscience like Aminatou Haidar. She is one of many brave people all around the world who resist intimidation, ostracism and pressure, and risk their lives, to promote freedom and justice. They are not soldiers or politicians, but ordinary people with the courage to do extraordinary things. A healthy society relies on civil courage, and we hope that by recognizing it in people like Aminatou Haidar, we can encourage others to follow in her footsteps and defend peacefully their civil rights."
Commenting on the relevance of the 2009 Prize, Suzanne Scholte, president of the Defense Forum Foundation and the nominator of Aminatou Haidar for the award, said:
"Especially at this time in world history, recognizing the efforts of Aminatou Haidar by the Train Foundation sends a wonderful and powerful message of hope to all Muslims and to all women who strive for the right to vote, for equality, for justice through peaceful means."
The Civil Courage Prize has been awarded annually since 2000 by The Train Foundation (formerly known as the Northcote Parkinson Fund). Wall Street Journalist columnist John Fund will speak at the award ceremony.
The 2009 Civil Courage Prize Award Ceremony will be held at the Harold Pratt House, 58 E. 68th St. in New York City, on October 20 from 6:30 pm to 8:30 pm. To attend the event as a member of the media, please contact Barbara Becker at 212-375-0661.
For further information about the Civil Courage Prize and this year's winner, please visit: http://www.civilcourageprize.org.
For comprehensive information on Western Sahara, please visit the RFK Center for Justice and Human Rights website: http://www.rfkmemorial.org/legacyinaction/2008_factsheet
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