I live in a world where someone who defends the rights of others gets abducted, dragged down a set of stairs, beaten to the point of losing consciousness, and then held in detention without access to a lawyer nor proper medical care. Add that to the protests in the Middle East and North Africa, a despot clinging to power in Libya, another despot finally getting arrested in Côte d’Ivoire, a few aftershocks in Japan, the latest on a royal wedding that I honestly don’t care about, another boring election in Canada (which I care slightly more about), and those are the headlines.
I have no role in most of the events above. I will vote when the time comes, I won’t turn on the TV when the Prince gets married, I can’t do much other than sympathize with those affected by the quakes in Japan. But when it comes to the arrest of Abdulhadi Al Khawaja, I cannot remain silent. Efforts must be made to call for his release, and this must be done now.
I admit to having a personal interest in the matter. It’s not just a case of “another human rights defender arrested,” this is Abdulhadi. His first contact with my organization Equitas was in 2004 as a participant in the IHRTP, the International Human Rights Training Program. When he returned to Bahrain from the Montreal-based program, he was arrested and detained. It was not the first time, nor was it to be the last. First impressions of this man are misleading. Quiet and polite, sincere and soft-spoken, almost always in a trademark white shirt and black jacket, his demeanor hides an intensity and passion that ignites upon talking about human rights. During one workshop in 2008 in which he was a participant, he questioned nearly everything, including the way in which my organization selected participants for small-scale human rights education activities. Upon saying goodbye to me at the end of the workshop, he said to me with a smile that he hoped he wasn’t too much trouble, hinting that he may have occasionally seemed a bit hard at times. His interventions, although more frequent than those of many other participants, were appreciated by me. Whenever he would say something, I’d sometimes stop and think to myself, I never thought of that. I reassured him that if he’d been a pain in the ass I would have told him.
The last time I met him was in Iraq in 2009. He was invited as a resource person to speak about the security of human rights defenders during a training of trainers workshop. I bumped into him in the hotel lobby as he arrived. It had been a long trip through Baghdad to Erbil, but he was willing to catch up and talk to me. As we sat in his hotel room, he recounted some of the horrors he’d witnessed investigating human rights violations in Iraq. When I asked him about his own arrest, detainment and trial earlier that year for a speech he’d made asking for resistance to abuses by the ruling regime “by peaceful means and civil disobedience,” he became mute.
Abdulhadi is a man of integrity, a man who believes in human rights for all, a man who has the courage to stand up for the voiceless at the risk of endangering his own life. For me, his arrest is not just “another human rights defender arrested.” This is someone I know. This is a man who stands up for people he does not know; the least we can do is show our support for him and to urge the authorities to immediately and unconditionally release him. By all accounts, it looks like his arrest and detention are “solely related to his legitimate and peaceful work in defence of human rights,” according to Front Line (the petition is here). As the wave of unstoppable protests rock the Middle East and North Africa, Abdulhadi is a voice we cannot do without. Set him free.