There are currently an estimated six hundred political prisoners in Bahrain, as a result of the regime`s ruthless retaliation against a popular uprising that started in February 2011. 397 citizens are thought to be currently serving sentences delivered by military and civilian courts that fall far short of international standards for fair trials.
On Saturday, 7 April 2012, one of these prisoners was transferred to a prison clinic after allegedly losing twenty-five percent of his body weight as the result of a hunger strike begun on 8 February 2012. Fifty-one-year-old human rights defender Abdulhadi al-Khawaja has reportedly said: "My hunger strike is a part of my human rights defense inside jail. It`s very important to focus on all detainees as I`m just a part of them. I will continue with my hunger strike until I reach my demands despite the consequences. I`m aware that freedom is expensive and we must sacrifice to gain it."
The Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI), paid for by the government itself and led by Professor Emeritus at De Paul University M. Cherif Bassiouni, found wide-ranging and grave violations of prisoners` human rights committed by government personnel. These include, but are not limited to, civilian deaths attributed to security forces, arbitrary detention, destruction and theft of property on arrest, prisoner injuries consistent with torture, and a deliberate practice of mistreatment by state agents. What is also notable about the BICI is that it does not call for the release of political prisoners.
Al-Khawaja, a pioneer of human rights work in Bahrain, is serving a life sentence alongside other notable dissidents for “plotting to overthrow the government.” A founding member of the prolific Bahrain Center for Human Rights, al-Khawaja worked most recently as a regional representative for Ireland-based Frontline Defenders and previously as a consultant for Amnesty International.
According to his daughter Zainab al-Khawaja, masked security personnel arrested her father on 8 April 2011 after attacking him and dragging his unconscious body out of her home. As described in the BICI report Case no. 8, Al Khawaja suffered physical abuse and sexual assault in prison, as well as threats of execution and harm to members of his family. He was due to be tried in a civilian court on 2 April, but reports now suggest that the trial has been postponed to 23 April.
As an individual case, al-Khawaja`s hunger strike has led to a resurgence of international media attention in Bahrain at a crucial time: the government is trying desperately to shift focus toward the upcoming Formula 1 Grand Prix in a bid to salvage its reputation. The media spotlight comes partly as a result of al-Khawaja`s public persona as a longtime and high-profile human rights defender, but also due to concerted campaigns on social media networks and an upsurge in street action. Protesters dispersed violently by state security forces last weekend chanted for his release. The majority of media coverage, however, lacks perspective, presenting the issue as one man on a hunger strike without due recognition of the background which led him to take this action.
Following his return to Bahrain in 2001 from a twelve-year exile in Denmark, Abdulhadi was arrested in 2004 after giving a seminar in which he criticized the Bahraini Prime Minister for his role in corruption and control of the national economy. The Bahrain Centre for Human Rights was shut down as a result of this seminar, and Abdulhadi served two months of a one-year prison sentence before being released on a royal pardon from the King. His detention then, as it has now, sparked unrest and street demonstrations calling for his release.
Again in 2007, Abdulhadi was brought to trial on charges of “[intending] to change the governing system of the country, circulating false information, insulting the king and inciting hatred against the regime." Once again, street demonstrations erupted, this time with the support of followers of the Al Wefaq bloc and the Haq party leader and opposition activist Hassan Mushaima.
Background aside, Abdulhadi is a significant figure in the Bahraini revolution, one who emerged amid the developing field of contestation at a time when all political parties were hedging their bets on whether or not to back the February 14 movement. A shrewd political activist, his current hunger strike in prison is best understood as a political action. The intended effects, I would argue, are threefold.
Firstly, he intends to up the stakes by increasing media focus on Bahrain. This would put pressure on the Bahraini regime, which has in the last months become very adept at a policy of “containing” mass action by violently blocking off and besieging sections of the country. As UK MP Richard Burden points out, the Formula 1 Grand Prix serves the regime in "presenting to the outside world a cocooned picture of normality at the Bahrain International Circuit, when what is likely to be going on just few miles outside the circuit could be very different indeed."
Secondly, the action gives momentum to the street movement, which has experienced a volatile thirteen months since the Saudi-backed regime crackdown last March, with different elements rising to the fore and others flailing. Although “we will not forget our prisoners” and “with you, with you, oh prisoners” are staple slogans of the uprising, the trouble is also that they are exactly that: staple chants in an ever more routine mechanism of protest-dispersal.
Thirdly, Abdulhadi’s prison hunger strike draws attention to the great white elephant of political prisoners in Bahrain. Very publicly, the regime has been implementing some BICI recommendations. These include creating investigative committees, establishing mechanisms for compensation, and reviewing court cases and workplace dismissals. This flurry of activity has allowed the Bahraini regime to do exactly what it would like to: regain its international reputation while at the same time not introducing any real measure of political solution. Sustaining Abdulhadi’s life—which the regime is reportedly doing through glucose and water supplications—is more strategically viable to the regime, given the potential havoc his death could wreak in an already highly flammable situation and the even greater negative public attention it would draw. Eyebrows have already been raised at the judiciary`s decision to deny a request by the Danish authorities for his transfer to Denmark.
Ultimately, as Palestinians in Israeli jails are going on hunger strikes to protest administrative detention, Abdulhadi al-Khawaja`s hunger strike is about a political issue—the 599 other civilians who languish in prison shadows without the attention afforded by public or family status, class and connections, and dual nationality. There is a personal struggle at the heart of it. It is a struggle between a regime that recognizes the strategic significance of sustaining a prisoner’s life while maintaining complete control over it, and a prisoner with almost no control over his life beyond his ability to resist and refuse the state`s complete control over it.
What international observers, diplomats, and media officials should be more conscious of is the larger political issue. For every Abdulhadi al-Khawaja and Hasan Safadi there are tens, even hundreds more who are imprisoned under unjust laws and through unfair trials, with their fundamental human rights to freedom, of person and of expression, removed. The silence of the Americans and reticence of the Europeans, the complicity of regional allies, the blinkered media view, and the ineffectiveness of international rights bodies only allows the already stagnant situation to remain unresolved, at arguably growing cost to all involved. As described in the Jadaliyya interview with a member of the February 14 Youth Coalition in Bahrain, "One of our biggest challenges in this revolution is the strong American support for this dictatorship and their disregard and indifference to the continued crimes and violations committed by the regime. Another major challenge to our revolution is the disinformation campaign in the media, with Saudi funding and support aiming to tarnish the image of the Bahraini revolution."
Denied justice and self-autonomy, these Arab prisoners, including Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, are arguably using what limited means they have to rally to the cry first raised by Tunisian Mohammed Bouazizi in his tragic self-immolation in December 2010: freedom or death. Whether they will be able to regenerate the momentum of events following that event remains to be seen.