The Arab Spring: When will the bloodshed end?

I woke up this morning and walked my children to the bus stop. They were so excited to go to school and play with their friends that they wanted to arrive at the stop twenty minutes early. The bus driver was punctual, I kissed my boys goodbye, walked home and read about a 14-year boy who was killed in Bahrain.
When I was fourteen I remember reading a quote in Omni magazine by Joseph Stalin, “One death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic.” So far the Arab Spring has claimed – according to Wikipedia, anyhow – anywhere from nearly 24000 to 54000 lives. The Economist offers a smaller number, excluding Libyan deaths as of July. Whatever the real number is – and I doubt anyone will ever know – there have been countless children like 14 year-old Ali Jawad Ahmad who were innocent victims.
I wonder what the parents of Ali are thinking now. Are their thoughts filled with as much anger as sorrow, as much hatred as grief? To have a son taken away like that after being hit by a gas canister must be an unbearable loss to live with. The road from an Arab Spring to an Arab Summer has its martyrs, but why must one of them be this child? If anything positive can come out of his untimely death, it’s to highlight the absurdity and cruelty of the violence being perpetrated on peaceful demonstrators. In Bahrain, where over 30 people have lost their lives in protests since February. In Yemen where it’s more than 200, in Libya where thousands have died, in Syria where the death toll is over 2200
When will the leaders in these countries have their WTF moment? When will they realize that by now, as long as there are people in their countries, there will be protestors in the streets demanding change? They will not back down. I hate to admit it, but the exit strategies led by Ben Ali in Tunisia and Mubarak in Egypt are proving themselves to be exemplary in comparison to the continued oppression we are seeing in Syria, Bahrain, and Yemen. When world leaders like President Obama (finally) state that “We have consistently said that President Assad must lead a democratic transition or get out of the way. He has not led. For the sake of the Syrian people, the time has come for President Assad to step aside,” you’d think Assad would listen. Then again, probably not. When Assad takes note of how Gadhafi has fled after viciously fighting, he has to wonder what his end game will be like.
There are far fewer protests in Bahrain than in Syria, but the grievances, the anger, and the desire to change, is just as present, and the same goes for Yemen.
King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa of Bahrain has offered to pardon some of the protesters, but many remain in prison, like my friend Abdulhadi al Khawaja. Worse, some civilians, like Abdulhadi, were tried in a military court, a mockery of justice. The independent fact-finding panel investigating alleged human rights abuses is set to release its findings at the end of October. The panel’s independence has been put into question seeing how the king set it up. With the death of Ali Jawad Ahmad, they need to critically examine police practices during the protests. Hopefully the panel’s recommendations will, at a minimum, describe the violations, identify the violators and propose actions for accountability and true reform.
The bloodshed must end. I do remember another quote from that Omni magazine all those years ago, this one from Aldous Huxley: “Maybe this world is another planet’s Hell.” I hope not.

We Will Not Be Silenced

Yesterday’s news was dire: Abdulhadi Al Khawaja, friend and human rights defender from Bahrain, had been sentenced to life in prison along with other protesters accused of plotting agains the government. A “mocking portrayal of justice,” wrote the Irish Examiner. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon urged the government in Bahrain to respect its international human rights obligations and allow those prosecuted to appeal their sentences. Even Barack Obama, known to tread delicately – wait, let me say feebly – on the subject of human rights in a country that hosts the US Fifth Fleet, said a few weeks ago, “mass arrests and brute force are at odds with the universal rights of Bahrain’s citizens.”

Where politicians fear to tread, it’s reassuring to know that human rights defenders will move forward with purpose and with determination to fight for what’s right. Dozens of human rights defenders here in Montreal for an annual human rights training program hosted by Equitas decided, of their own initiative, to demonstrate at lunchtime today to voice their condemnation at Abdulhadi’s life sentence at the hands of a military court. Abdulhadi, a former program participant, was instrumental in assisting Equitas to develop a human rights education program in the Middle East and North Africa.

The voices of these participants expressing their condemnation today are no different than the voices heard in Bahrain over this injustice; they are no different from the voices of human rights defenders and average citizens from around the world angered at the government of Bahrain’s oppression. The message is clear, our collective voices are strong, and we will not be silenced until justice takes precedence: Free Abdulhadi.

Related posts:
Demonstration by human rights defenders for Abdulhadi’s release

#FreeAbdulhadi. Now.

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