Two years after the Iranian Revolution, Iran attempted to back a coup to overthrow the Bahraini al-Khalifa monarchy in favor of a Shiite theocracy. The plot was foiled, and things for the majority-Shiite island state haven’t quite been the same since.
Two other alleged coup attempts followed in the coming decades, along with periods of considerable civilian unrest followed by government crackdowns. Looking beyond the ascendancy of politicized Shiite fundamentalism in the 1980’s, Bahrain and Iran have had what can best be described as a tense relationship for at least the past 50 years – with Iran unsuccessfully pursuing the annexation of Bahrain as its 14th province from 1957 to 1971.
It is upon this historical backdrop that we find the Sunni al-Khalifa regime presenting the rather convenient argument that the typically peaceful protestors in Bahrain’s ongoing, Arab Spring protest movement are essentially just little Khomenei’s hoping to turn a prosperous and civil Bahrain into a small-scale Iran circa 1979.
One peaceful protestor is a Bahraini activist named Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja. He is a prisoner of conscience who was sentenced to life in prison for his activities during Bahrain’s Spring 2011 protests. He also happens to be over two months into a highly publicized hunger strike.
In May 2011, Human Rights Watch noted, “It appears that Abdulhadi al-Khawaja’s jailers tortured him” and that he bore, “visible signs of ill-treatment.” Amnesty International also reports “he was tortured in custody.”
On Tuesday, rights groups, academics and British politicians delivered an open letter to the Bahraini embassy in London calling for his release, “in conformity to the findings and recommendations of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI).” The BICI was commissioned by Bahrain’s King Hamad Isa Al Khalifa and was asked to investigate alleged human rights abuses during Bahrain’s Spring 2011 protests.
Al-Khawaja’s often-unreported membership in the organization – now a political party — behind the 1981 coup attempt until 1989 is certainly of consequence. In a secret leaked US State Department cable from 2005 King Hamad suggests that Al-Khawaja was involved in the coup attempt, that he was trained in Iran and that he maintains links to Iran.
Al-Khawaja’s case is not helped by another cable, posted a day earlier, which claims that he attended an event in “honor” (State Department’s quotations) of the 73 people convicted after the coup attempt.
Regardless, Al-Khawaja appears committed to nonviolent resistance during the current wave of Bahraini protests and nonviolent political expression is his right. As is his right to a fair trial.
As the writers of the aforementioned letter note, Bahrain’s chances for a smooth and successful reform process along with a reconciliation between Sunnis and Shiites will likely be all-but-dashed for some time if the regime allows Al-Khawaja to die.
On Tuesday, Bahrain’s attorney general claimed that the hunger striker was in ‘good health.’ Two foreign doctors corroborated the claim, to some extent; however, their report notes that, “If [Al-Khawaja] continues to hunger strike and does not allow any medical interference his life will be in serious danger.”
The Obama administration has remained somewhat silent on the matter and on Bahraini democracy in general. But, hey, maybe fifteen human rights organizations will be more successful at drawing their support than thousands of struggling, little Kho—human beings.