A Bahraini Hunger Strike And An Inhumane Argument

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.

Presumably, it’s the line of argumentation used to justify some of the ruling regime’s more brutish acts of repression – including harassing, trying and torturing medics.

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.”

That same day Denmark, where Al-Khawaja is also a citizen, urged his release and the UN urged his transfer to Denmark.

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.

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  1. Zaia Youkhanna says

    Manama the capital of Bahrain, two years ago, was listed as the second best city in the world by expats. UN and Human rights organizations should urge Iran or Iraq to take Mr. Al-Khawaja rather than Demark. There he can enjoy the hospitality of free and democratic Shiites states. Yes, Gandhi brought down the British rule (foreign rule) through peaceful protest; however, right after India’s independence, Nehru put a stop to peaceful protest. Clearly it is the Iranian nexus that has not galvanized the rest of the world to back up the protest in Bahrain.

  2. says

    First for reference and the sake of clarification,

    To the best of my knowledge, this statement — delivered by the White House press secretary, after the publication of the human rights organizations’ letter and before the publication of this article — sums up the White House’s entire public reaction to the ongoing Al Khawaja affair, at this point in time: http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2012/04/11/statement-press-secretary-situation-bahrain

    It’s not a direct and “unconditional” call for release, as the human rights organizations request, but it does express concern for Al Khawaja’s “well being” and calls “on the Government of Bahrain to consider urgently all available options to resolve his case.” Furthermore, it’s a testament to the power of persistent international calls for justice.


    Sorry for the delayed response.

    Much of “the world” is backing protestors in Bahrain. Although the US government wields a tremendous amount of influence it should not be conflated with “the world.”

    In a few leaked state department cables from 2005 former Ambassador to Bahrain, William T. Monroe, repeatedly records the concern that Al Khawaja (among others) was then seeking to “provoke a crisis with the government of Bahrain.”

    During the same year former CDA, now US ambassador to Qatar Susan L. Ziadeh, reiterates this point in another cable, accusing Al Khawaja of carrying out “provocative acts.”

    Former Ambassador Monroe is frank about Al Khawaja’s motives in one particular cable:

    “Al Khawaja and other Committee members are clearly seeking to provoke a crisis with the GOB, which they hope will lead to greater political and economic influence for Bahrain’s Shi’a majority. As long as unemployment rates run high (currently 15-20% by some estimates) and hit primarily the Shi’a community, lack of jobs will be a potential source of instability.”

    Like their then Bush Administration peers, former Ambassador Monroe and Ambassador Ziadeh were hampered by their old-style imperialist frameworks of perception and as a result their analyses of the situation Bahrain were compromised.

    The unemployment rate of 15-20% that “primarily” hit a particular identity group was itself a crisis. The crisis encompassed institutionalized bigotry in Bahrain and highlighted legitimate Shiite concerns.

    The space for the “provocative acts” of Al Khawaja and others was created by this crisis — the acts were a symptom of the crisis.

    Likewise, as one article from Foreign Affairs suggests, cited in the blog post above suggests, today, “provocative acts” (a general atmosphere of unrest in Bahrain) likely, to a large extent, rooted in persisting institutional crises.