Politics | Al-Khawaja: Bahrain’s peaceful resistance, the world’s shameful silence
New in Ceasefire, Special Reports - Posted on Wednesday, April 11, 2012 0:00 - 2 Comments
Picture (released by his family) of Bahraini human rights activist Abdulhadi Al Khawaja as he enters the 58th day of his hunger strike (5 April 2012)
On the dawn of the 8th of April 2011, Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja was abducted from his home by masked police officers and armed men in civilian clothing. He was kicked, brutally beaten to the ground, and pushed down the stairs to roll in his own blood. His family watched on helplessly begging for the beating to stop. As he began to lose consciousness, the last words they heard from their father on that night were ‘Stop, I can’t breath!’ To the outside world, these dawn house raids may sound horrific. For Bahraini activists, this is the expected system of arrest – Al Khalifa style.
Since then, Mr Al-Khawaja, along with other leading activists, was tried before a military tribunal and given a life sentence for allegedly ‘organising and managing a terrorist organisation’ (Read: Directing a human rights centre). Serving a sentence of this kind meant Al-Khawaja has spent much of his time as an inmate at the hospital, rather than the prison. The BICI Report documents Mr Al-Khawaja’s subjection to physical and sexual torture as “Case No.8”. His injuries were so severe that at one point he required a four-hour surgical procedure to restore his fractured jawbone. Blindfolded, and tightly handcuffed to the hospital bed, he was prematurely discharged against medical orders, and then received the usual dosage of nightly beatings in prison as he tried to recover. As chilling as his own life has become, he states that the worst part of his detention is hearing other people being tortured while being unable to help.
Today, Mr Al-Khawaja has spent the past 69 days on a hunger strike, which he has declared as “Freedom or Death”. Doctors warn that his condition is critical, and his family and lawyer have not heard from him for the past two days. I hesitate to speculate, but he could very well be dead as I write this. His last words to his daughter were, “It is best to die in dignity, than to ever live in humiliation”. For the people of Bahrain, Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja is the embodied reality of their resistance. His sacrifice is an ultimate struggle to merely be recognised as human.
It is difficult to find a single Bahraini family who has not experienced at least some form of injustice. And I’ve yet to meet a single Bahraini family who has witnessed any of the King’s promised ‘reforms’. In fact some of the few people who have dubbed these so called ‘reforms’ as ‘a victory’ have been promoted government officials with serious torture allegations held against them. But neither the King nor his torture-tainted officials are in a position to talk of ‘reforms’. I’m sure the dozens of bodies in fresh graves would tell us of what the ‘reform process’ has meant for them.
Streets have been seething with anger and frustration for over a year now, and yet the resistance continues to emphasise non-violence as its strategy. Methods to counter the oppression have ranged from peaceful sit-ins, marches, candle light vigils, boycotts, strikes, and petitions. The walls of downtown Manama bear the scars of a turbulent year in Bahrain. Revolutionary graffiti, and murals of martyrs are sprayed over by security forces with slogans praising the Al Khalifa rule. However it only takes a couple of days for the protesters to reclaim the streets again with their artwork.
One of the most entertaining forms of peaceful opposition has been to hassle the security forces with the task of confiscating stationed miniature models of the pearl monument- which was demolished by government orders a year ago for being a symbol of protests.
Since February the 14th, and until this day the people continue to chant “Silmeya, Silmeya”- Peaceful, Peaceful. And until this day, protesters continue their attempts to approach the armed riot police with flowers. Despite the peaceful efforts, the government has neglected its duties to appease the demands of the people, and have chosen to resort to systematic methods of police brutality, which has resulted in creating a routine structure of collective punishment, causing many causalities and deaths.
As the government continues to dig its way into a police state, Bahraini’s have begun to question the effectiveness of non-violent tactics. It’s doubtless to say that the creative strategies exercised by activists for the past year prove that violence was never on the agenda for change- it still isn’t. However now a disgruntled, and psychologically traumatised populace are struggling to reason the merits of a moral tactic when confronted with a regime that has lost all moral ground. It is no surprise then that after a year of having the government’s forces conduct routine violent excursions into residential areas, the odd protester is prepared to defend oneself from the government forces with a Molotov cocktail bomb. In fact one must really wonder in astonishment at how such a persecuted peoples have managed to strive for so long without ever even picking up any firearms as of yet. This may change should the government continue to ignore the civil liberties of the people.
Time, money, energy, and a dozen or so expensive government PR companies have worked to demonise the protesters as an erratic bunch of ‘violent Shia vandals’ whose goals are destructive to Bahrain’s national fabric. The Al Khalifa’s tactic for survival is to disguise Bahrain’s political corruption, with the allegation that national security has been breached. Consequently the protesters demands have been met with little seriousness – if any. The government has chosen to neglect the political upheaval that threatens its existence, in favour of sensationalising the narrative of events to the point in which a lone burning tyre causes much more hysteria amongst royalists than does a dead body.
Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja today, on his 69th day of hunger strike, is the supreme test to the government’s toleration of non-violent protests. His strike presents a challenge for the regime to confess its disregard for civil liberties, and exposes the regimes fabricated myths of national security. The strategies deployed by the resistance were never a concerning issue for the tyrants of this land; the real threat to the regime has been the very existence of a resistance, albeit the resistance’s tactics of choice. The question now is, if the regime is not willing to negotiate with a man who has practiced the ultimate peaceful sacrifice by starving himself to be free, , then what other peaceful tactics is the regime willing to negotiate on?
On February the 13th, a week into Mr Al-Khawaja’s hunger strike, the King of Bahrain told Der Spiegel magazine that: “There are no political prisoners as such in Bahrain. People are not arrested because they express their views, we only have criminals.” It’s funny that this self-appointed King would say that, having apparently ‘accepted’ the results of his commissioned BICI report, and having apparently read Al-Khawaja’s “Case No.8”. But other than living up to his name as ‘The King who breaks promises”, the real matter of concern, is how does one negotiate the release of a political prisoner, when the authority of the state is unwilling to recognise the prisoner’s status?
As Mr Al-Khawaja’s condition is rapidly deteriorating, protests have recently erupted globally in solidarity with his strike. The Danish Foreign Minister Villy Soevnda recently proposed the extradition of Mr Al-Khawaja to Denmark for urgent necessary treatment on the basis of Mr Al-Khawaja’s dual Danish-Bahraini citizenship. Although the proposal was rejected, the UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon has recently urged Bahrain to reconsider the Danish proposal to transfer Mr Al-Khawaja to Denmark.
The UN’s efforts may have come too late to save Al-Khawaja’s life, but Al-Khawaja’s words to his daughter shall linger on in the minds of many for decades to come, “It is best to die in dignity, than to ever live in humiliation”. If the worst is to come true, Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja’s spirit shall live in dignity, and the world shall forever live in shame.
See also John Lubbock’s report: “F1 urged to rethink Bahrain GP, as hunger striker nears death”
For updates and info please visit the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights website.