A #BirthdayBehindBars: Free Abdulhadi al-Khawaja before it’s too late

April 5 is Abdulhadi al-Khawaja’s birthday. After 56 days on a hunger strike, I can’t imagine he’d even have the strength to blow out any birthday candles if he had any. For him, there is no reason to celebrate, having been arrested nearly a year ago, beaten, tried in a mockery of justice, sentenced to life in prison, and spending the past year either in jail or in a hospital. “Freedom or death,” he calls out from his prison cell in Bahrain. As every day passes and his health deteriorates, it gets harder to remain hopeful.
The choice to start and maintain the hunger strike is his own, a protest to his imprisonment and the oppressive crackdown, detention and sentencing of peaceful protestors in Bahrain now in its second year. Eight weeks without food is beyond remarkable; it is a reflection of the man’s tenacity and courage. He was a feisty participant in a human rights workshop I facilitated four years ago.  At the end he shook my hand and said, “Sorry for being such a pain. I can’t help it.” Indeed, he couldn’t help himself: he was constantly questioning, constantly probing, constantly challenging, and tireless in his energy. Even as his health deteriorates, his strength of character remains strong.
In an earlier post I grudgingly understood and accepted his reasons for starting his hunger strike. I’m hopeful that his actions have raised awareness of the continuing violence in Bahrain, and more broadly in other countries where the Arab Spring is far from blossoming into an Arab Summer. Frontline Defenders tenaciously advocates for his release; so does Amnesty International. Abdulhadi’s daughters Zainab and Maryam and his wife blanket the Twittersphere with updates on his condition and the ongoing violence in Bahrain; his friend Nabeel Rajab does the same.
Abdulhadi has become so much more than the man himself. He is the embodiment of a movement, he is the voice of the oppressed, he is a man who has stood facing his oppressors and demanded, in a peaceful and non-violet manner, that they treat everyone with human dignity and respect their rights. He is more than a symbol for freedom and human rights, he is a beacon of hope, he is every man, woman and child walking the streets of Bahrain protesting an oppressive regime that persists in its complete disregard for basic human rights. His hunger strike is a clarion call for Bahrainis to peacefully stand up for their rights, and an equally loud call to the rest of us who should not sit idle while the violence continues.
Nicholas Kristof recently tweeted, “Growing fears that #Bahrain activist Al-Khawaja cld die of his hunger strike. That’d be a catastrophe at every level.” This is not an exaggeration. Apart from the enormity of such a tragedy for his family and friends, his death would be a crushing blow to a peaceful movement in Bahrain that seeks only equality and respect for human rights for all its citizens. On an international scale, his death would be a grim reminder that human rights defenders continue to pay too high a price for defending the rights of others. I like to think that any sorrow or anger from his death would invariably shape itself into a fiercer passion. His voice will never be silenced; it will only resonate even more loudly in the passionate cries of those he has been defending. But this is not a day to even contemplate. Rather, as his hunger strike enters a critical stage seriously endangering his health, one can only hope that the cry so many of us have chanted in one form or another – Free Abdulhadi al-Khawaja – will come true, and not a moment too soon.

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