Until freedom or death: Abdulhadi al-Khawaja’s hunger strike

A question. What were you doing on Wednesday 8 February? Er, you probably don’t know. (Why would you?) Me neither. You’re even less likely to remember what you had to eat that day. Again, why on earth would you …? I mention it as 8 February is the day that the imprisoned Bahraini human rights activist Abdulhadi al-Khawaja began a hunger strike. So we know what he had to eat that day - nothing. And the same for the next 61 days. Nothing.

To my mind there’s something mind-boggling about refusing food in this calculated way (you think of food scarcity around the world, you think about the hunger pangs, the pain …). Then again, plenty of extreme things are mind-boggling (scaling The Shard, torture, some voluntary, some very much involuntary). Here, though, we’re talking about a perilous, life-threatening action that is in a sense neither voluntary or involuntary. Abdulhadi is a prisoner of conscience, serving a life sentence for a non-offence. Along with thousands of others, he took part in the peaceful Pearl Roundabout protests in Bahrain last spring. His life sentence was handed down by a military tribunal and there are allegations that he was tortured both before and after his unfair trial.

The Bahraini authorities’ crackdown was brutal and excessive, as even they now seem to admit. In November a report by the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI) castigated the authorities for mass arrests of peaceful demonstrators, widespread torture in detention and dozens of flawed military trials of activists and professionals. The response from King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa and others in power was basically contrition, and promises to reform.

So why is Abdulhadi - and any of the others similarly jailed - still behind bars? Well, under the terms of the BICI inquiry the Bahraini authorities are supposed to be ensuring that all civilians convicted before military courts receive reviews before a civilian court. But Abdulhadi’s has been postponed, from 2 to 23 April. After 62 days without food he is thought unlikely to survive until 23 April, so the delay has become a kind of death sentence (he’s already said to be close to a state of coma).

The cruel irony of Abdulhadi’s desperate protest is that the beatings he suffered in detention last spring left him with a very badly damaged jaw (he’s had several operations and now has 18 plates and 36 screws in his face). He can only eat with difficulty and whilst suffering pain. And now he’s not even doing that …

If you want to support it, Amnesty’s campaign for Abdulhadi al-Khawaja (and 13 fellow POCs) is here, while this “Open Letter” article from Lord Avebury and others is also well worth reading and sharing. Abdulhadi has a long track record of doing human rights work with Amnesty and others (including research in Iraq), and it’s sad to have to now campaign for him in this way. He’s a veteran of arrests and physical attacks, displaying that kind of personal bravery I always find staggering, almost incomprehensible. His motto over his hunger strike is: freedom or death. Let’s hope it’s not death.

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