Aminatou Haidar talks about Western Sahara during an interview in Washington. Dennis Cook / AP
With her hands and feet bound and her body tied to a wooden plank, Aminatou Haidar endured hours of torture, including electric shocks and threats of rape.
“My body is only a heap of flesh and bones. The police begin to practise systematic methods of torture and other cruel and degrading treatment,” the Western Saharan activist wrote after her Moroccan captors released her.
“The more I resisted, the more the methods of torture diversify and sadism attains its heights.”
Ms Haidar, 41, was a 20-year-old student in 1987 when she took part in a peaceful demonstration aiming to earn self-determination for her homeland. After the protest she was detained along with dozens of others and became one of many “disappeared”.
Her Moroccan captors released her after four years and her ordeal set in motion her long battle to help get recognition for the Western Sahara.
It is a fight that has thrust the divorced mother of two to the forefront of the Algerian-backed Polisario Front, which has been trying to get its own homeland for more than 30 years from its neighbour Morocco, which is backed by the United States and France.
Analysts say a human rights award for Ms Haidar from the Washington-based Robert F Kennedy Memorial, and the appointment of a new UN envoy to the area, could bring the cause enough attention to begin resolving it.
On Thursday, Kennedy’s widow, Ethel, will present the award to Ms Haidar, who is seen as an ambassador for her people and has previously been nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize, in a move that goes against the grain of the US government’s position on the Arab country, which has been embroiled in the bitter dispute since Spain ended its colonial rule in the mid-1970s.
“The award adds pressure on Morocco and bolsters Polisario’s case in terms of international thinking,” said Jacob Mundy, a Western Sahara analyst with the Middle East Information and Reporting Project.
Stephen Zunes, a professor of politics and international studies at the University of San Francisco, said the award gave badly needed publicity to the situation.
“It puts Morocco in a difficult situation. It’s going to make it harder for them to arrest and torture her again.
“Moroccans have tried to portray anyone opposing them as a Polisario terrorist and she is clearly not a terrorist and is part of a generally popular struggle.
The conflict stems from Morocco sending occupying forces into the Western Sahara, one of the most sparsely populated territories in the world, after Spain relinquished its claim. The move disobeyed resolutions by the UN Security Council and a ruling from the International Court of Justice that rejected Morocco’s claim on the land and recognised the Western Saharans’ right to self-determination.
Polisario fought a guerrilla war against the occupiers until 1991, and since then several peace deals have been rejected by both sides.
Last month, the UN General Assembly approved a draft resolution designed to promote a new phase of negotiations. Both parties welcomed the move, but Morocco has not yet backed the appointment of the proposed new UN envoy, Christopher Ross, who is a former US ambassador to Syria and Algeria.
The move would put the United States back at the centre of the conflict, but Mr Mundy said Mr Ross could face a tough challenge.
“He will have the same limited tool kit, which is all carrot and no stick.”
Each side is unflinching in its position and Mr Mundy said the new US administration, led by Barack Obama, would have little effect on the situation because the country is unlikely to change its stance: Morocco is too important strategically.
The last US envoy to the area was James Baker, a former secretary of state under George H W Bush. His proposals involved Western Sahara becoming a semiautonomous region of Morocco, with a referendum then being held on independence.
Last month, five former US ambassadors to Morocco issued a statement saying independence was out of the question and backed the autonomy plan.
Analysts said there are only two likely outcomes for the Western Sahara – resolution through international pressure or an armed uprising by Polisario.
Mr Zunes said the best way to effect a resolution was pressure from human rights groups in France and the United States to stop their countries’ support of Morocco.
“People in the territories need to take things into their own hands through massive non-co-operation and protests to try to make the territory ungovernable and force the occupiers that the status quo is unacceptable.”
Mr Mundy said he agreed, but said the environment for armed conflict still exists.
“Unless this becomes a bigger issue for international solidarity networks, unless they can ramp up the pressure on governments, I don’t see the situation improving.
“Change will only happen if the situation explodes and Polisario decides to go back to war, or some demonstration boils out of control.
“The situation in the Western Sahara could become much more unstable, much more violent.”