Abdulhadi Al Khawaja, the 51-year-old co-founder of the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights, reaches his 78th day of a hunger strike today, just as world media attention turns away from the island after the Grand Prix. The Bahraini authorities tell us he is in good health. But what if they act too late?
Activists, they never die of hunger strike. Sooner or later they always win. Gandhi never died, he won. Suffragettes too, they won, so that all of us women can vote today. No one ever dies of hungerstrike.
Therefore Abdulhadi Al Khawaja, 51 years old, activist and co-founder of the Bahrain Center For Human Rights, will not die.
Yet we do not know where he is. We do not even know how alive he is. Abdulhadi is protesting after having been refused a fair trial. He wants his life sentence to be reviewed. All that the authorities did, so far, was to postpone his court hearing. Days go by. The day before yesterday it was day number seventy-six; yesterday was number seventy-seven. Bahrain is too far, our life too busy, and after all Abdulhadi, this Arab Gandhi of our times, could never die of hunger strike, because activists never die of hunger strike. One way or another they always end up winning.
Abdulhadi’s crime is to have spent a lifetime documenting and reporting human rights violations in that tiny island in the Gulf of oil and gas, an island called Bahrain which we know only thanks to Formula One, the Fifth Fleet US marines roaming around, and a few cheap brothels placed there to amuse Saudi princes. That tiny island, though, also hosts one of the most remarkable examples of steadfast and fearless passive resistance movements – a popular movement against sectarian apartheid and human rights violations which Abdulhadi Al Khawaja, today on his 78th day of hungerstrike, helped found decades ago. He denounced the fact that Bahrain is run by a monarchy ready to kill its citizens on the basis of their religious confession. This commitment gained Abdulhadi a life as a runaway, him and his family, in and out of prison, one torture after the other, until that February 2011 when the Bahraini popular upraisal was repressed in blood and Abdulhadi was jailed for not shutting up.
Abdulhadi’s daughter, Zeinab Al Khawaja, told me the first time I met her, back in 2008 in Manama: “You know, once you know what your rights are, it’s hard to shut up”. Isn’t it simple. After you’ve learned that, she told me, freedom in your head is the only thing that matters. Freedom of thought can never be taken from you. Just learn to not shut up. This is what brought Adbulhadi to start his hungerstrike, seventy eight days ago: he wants to be free. He knows it’s his right to be free. He knows that if they want to take your freedom, all they can have is just your life. So he stopped eating.
Once you know, you cannot shut up. Tonight, Zeinab too is in jail. She was standing in the middle of the highway last Sunday, to protest against her father’s slow death, asking the occupants of one car after another to please not shut up. In Bahrain, this is enough to land you in jail. But then again, if you knew that your unjustly imprisoned father was being left to die of hungerstrike somewhere, what would you do, would you shut up, or would you scream in the middle of a street?
Zeinab has a small child. How would it feel to grow up knowing that your grandfather was left to die on hunger strike in jail? Personally I cannot imagine it. Because I too had a grandfather who was an activist and who was arrested for his political opinions, many moons ago. When he was arrested, people did not shut up, so that in the end they eventually had to release him. But what if things had gone wrong, what if at that time people chose to shut up? What if activists do die on hunger strike?
But no, activists never die of hunger strike. And Abdulhadi will live. That’s also what the Bahraini authorities tell us. That Abdulhadi is in good health. But the Bahraini authorities are those who forbade the Danish Ambassador – Abdulhadi is a Danish citizen, for decades it was the only citizenship the world would allow him to have – from meeting Al Khawaja.
The Bahraini authorities are the ones who have been shooting unarmed protesters for years, who have been teargassing nurses and arresting doctors who helped injured women and children. The Bahrain authorities are the ones who have been running a cultural whitewash – convincing Sunni citizens to be afraid of Shi’as like Abdulhadi; torturing with electroshocks and drills whoever tried not to shut up; beating up journalists; dispossessing Shi’as of their lands, and forbidding them to work and to live outside the ghetto they have grown up on the Eastern side of the Island of Bahrain. Those authorities have been “importing” Baluchi villagers from Pakistan and giving them weapons and orders to attack people like Abdulhadi. Those same authorities, faced with Abdulhadi’s imminent death, decided to postpone his trial of another week, hoping time will deliver them from the freedoms of his mind. So how can we trust the Bahraini authorities, how can we shut up?
Day seventy-eight. Somewhere in her cell, where they are probably beating her, as is common practice in Bahrain, Zeinab is a few hours away from losing her father. But then again activists, they never die of hunger strike. Right?
But what if Abdulhadi does.
How will we all look at ourselves in the mirror tomorrow, how can we shut up, now that we know?
Please take action. Advocate, campaign, join the protest in front of the Bahraini Embassy. Demand freedom for Abdulhadi Al Khawaja. It’s already day seventy-eight.
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