Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, a prominent Bahraini human rights activist who was sentenced to life imprisonment in a military court, is now in a critical stage of a hunger strike which has gone on for 64 days. Foreign doctors who have been to see him have said he is at serious risk of death if he continues. The Bahraini government has rejected increasing international pressure to release him, and has limited outside access. His plight has begun to draw attention to the failure of reform in Bahrain, including an unusual White House statement yesterday. If he dies, it could mark a significant breaking point for the regime’s efforts to rehabilitate its tarnished reputation — and could accelerate the disturbing trend toward militant radicalization in the opposition.
Hunger striking has become a distinctive phenomenon in the current round of Arab protest movements. It has a long history, marking many of the major emancipatory struggles throughout the world from British suffragettes to Sri Lankan Tamil Tigers. It has recently emerged as a particularly important form of protest against tyrannical states. From Palestine, to Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, prisoners of conscience have used the last thing they control — their bodies — as a tool of dissent. Palestinian Hana Shalabi was released by the Israelis after a 43-day hunger strike, while Mohamed Albajadi in Saudi Arabia is on his 33rd day. Al-Khawaja’s hunger strike, by dovetailing on the back of a revolutionary tide, and supported by a digitally wired and outspoken family, has elevated his protest beyond his prison walls.
Al-Khawaja has a long history as the lone voice on taboo issues in the nation’s political battle for self-determination. He turned his back on the militant Islamist group Islamic Front for the Liberation of Bahrain (IFLB) that he was associated with in the 1980s and evolved into a leading advocate of non-violent direct action against the al-Khalifa ruling family. In exile in Denmark in the 1990s, he absorbed the human rights discourse and the democratic experience of living in the West. When he returned to Bahrain in 2002, he was determined to fight the system on a human rights platform — a campaign he brought to the international arena as well as to Bahraini civil society. In 2004 he landed in prison for demanding the resignation of the Prime Minister Khalifa ibn Sulman al-Khalifa who had been in power for 40 years, then a dangerously taboo subject but now the main demand of the "formal" opposition societies such as al-Wefaq. Last year, as he saw regimes appear to fall one by one, al-Khawaja began to call for Bahrain to become a republic, with no place for the royal family. On April 8, he was arrested, no doubt for voicing that radical demand.
The international attention to al-Khawaja has begun to force the long-submerged Bahraini struggle into the international limelight. He is a prisoner who according to Professor Cherif Bassiouni, the head of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI), is a "prisoner of conscience" and should not be in jail in the first place, having already been subjected to multiple violations: systematic torture, a military trial, and persecution. His plight has put a major roadblock in the path of the team of international public relations firms who have worked for months to rebuild the Bahraini regime’s international reputation. As the clock ticks over al-Khawaja’s life, this tension could grow. If he dies ahead of the Formula 1 race still scheduled for Bahrain, it will be difficult to imagine the event going ahead at all.
The longer the hunger strike has gone on, the wider the fissures emerging within the regime, as opinion over how to deal with al-Khawaja appear to differ strongly within the royal family. Factions are torn between those who can see logic in releasing him ahead of the planned Formula 1 Grand Prix, and those, particularly the military, who appear blinded by vengeance and would probably rather see al-Khawaja dead than any potential benefits of good will at this critical point in time in the conflict. The Bahraini Foreign Minister, discussing the case on Twitter, questioned the religious permissibility of "voluntary starvation" and re-tweeted the responses that considered it suicide and hence, a sin. There have also been calls by officials and loyalists to deport al-Khawaja and revoke his citizenship on the basis that dual nationality is illegal. The hardliners however, would rather not be seen to cave in to pressure at all.
Al-Khawaja’s death would put to end once and for all the hopes for Bahrain’s already creaking reform process. His death will make the prospect of genuine peace and reconciliation a distant aspiration. The opposition will be forced to escalate its demands to meet the anger on the street. The long-feared rise of a more radical opposition movement appears to be coming closer to reality. Two bombs went off in the first two weeks of April alone, and militant rhetoric can be heard increasingly publicly from opposition cadres. As their frustration builds and their demands escalate, the conflict increasingly would shift from a political battle to an existential one. The popularity of al-Khawaja has soared over the past two weeks as he has been held up as a symbol of the revolution.
There are very few men like al-Khawaja, with as much resolve and audacity in speaking out against injustice, in a region where the choice for activists is either petro-dollars or prison. He has gained moral authority by showing impressive courage and self-dignity. The regime now faces a moment of truth. Will it allow him to die for his beliefs while the world, finally, is paying heed?
Dr. Ala’a Shehabi is a British-born Bahraini and an economics lecturer in Bahrain. She has a PhD from Imperial College London and previously worked as a policy analyst for RAND Europe, part of the RAND Corporation. Follow here on twitter @alaashehabi.