A letter to my sons: one friend’s sacrifice

Dear Alexandre, Dear Sam,


After the battle at Hogwart’s Castle in the final Harry Potter novel, there comes a point when Harry chooses to confront Lord Voldemort on his own in the forest. He knows he will likely die, but it’s a decision he feels he must take because too many of his friends have suffered and died protecting him. Harry makes the ultimate sacrifice, and for a brief time, we do think he has died.


I have a friend who is making a sacrifice that is not all that different than what Harry chose to do. He has seen his friends, family and people he does not know suffer as a result of fighting for their rights. He himself was arrested, tortured, and sentenced to life in prison last year only because he asked for these rights. His sentence was unfair and criticized the world over, yet still he remains in jail. About a couple of months ago he came to a decision that would, in one way or another, end his sentence: he would either be set free or die. He chose to stop eating, and has not eaten anything for the past 76 days. The people who put him away have no intention of letting him go.


He did nothing wrong. Like me, he has fought for the rights of others, but he has done so in a country where human rights are selectively applied: some people have rights, while others who protest against the government risk getting arrested, hurt by the police, killed or sent to prison.


There are a lot of people in his country, Bahrain, who are trying to set him free. His wife, his daughters, his friends and former colleagues have all tried to let the world know that his life sentence is unfair. And he’s not the only one: many other people are also facing the same fate as him, all because they demanded the government to respect the rights of the people living there.


It’s hard to imagine that something like this can actually be true. This is the kind of stuff Lord Voldermort would do to Harry Potter and his friends. The only difference is that this is real, and there won’t be anyone around to wave a magic wand and zap my friend free. The people in Bahrain asking for my friend’s freedom are not alone: millions of people around the world are asking for his release. Lots of people from human rights organizations want him set free. Their appeals for his freedom are always ignored.


My friend is a stubborn man. He has said that his hunger strike will be “freedom or death,” and I know he means it. He’s playing a game of chicken with his government, and he won’t give up. If they don’t release him, he will die. It’s been hard for me to accept this, but I realize he’s doing this for greater freedom of the people of Bahrain. He is an unwilling hero, and he is prepared to sacrifice his life to let the world know that his government is committing human rights violations and doesn’t care what anybody thinks. I feel for him, I feel for his family. And I’m filled with anger and sadness at the plight my friend is in. No one should have to suffer like this. The decision to go on his hunger strike was his own, but the conditions that led him to do this were created by mean-spirited people in positions of power who are afraid of him. What they don’t realize is that, even if he does die, others who believe in the same things as he does will continue his struggle. One way or another, there will be a day in Bahrain where everyone has the same rights. I just don’t want my friend to pay the highest price imaginable for that day to be a reality.


I’m sorry I wrote a letter that isn’t uplifting – some days are harder than others to find happiness.



Je t’aime Alexandre, je t’aime Sam. 

The protests in Bahrain will outlast the Grand Prix

No, this certainly isn’t live.

Earlier today, as I flipped through the channels on my TV in my hotel room in Amman, I came across Bahrain TV. The show was on antique sports cars. Old Chevys, Pontiacs and Fords were cruising down the streets of Bahrain under cloudless skies. Amidst the violence taking place in the streets at that moment, it could not have been a sadder contrast to the events of the past few days. My Twitter feed painted a more accurate picture of the reality in the tiny island nation: thousands of people taking to the streets in protest, one man killed, and police throwing teas gas and firing bird shot into crowds. 

The protests have swelled in magnitude over the past few days, a result of the staggeringly insensitive and ignorant decision on behalf of Formula One (and the government of Bahrain) to plough ahead with the Bahrain Grand Prix. F1’s boss Mr. Ecclestone repeatedly said that sports has no place in politics. He is wrong, and the events of the past few days have conclusively shown this. As Robert Fisk rightly points out, “The days have gone when sportsmen and sportswomen can dissociate themselves from the moral values in which we claim to believe in the 21st century.” Those values – which unquestioningly deserve to be universal ones – are at a minimum a respect for human dignity, the respect for life, the obligation to prevent suffering and the renunciation of all forms of violence. All of these are being compromised as the race goes on.

I don’t hate Formula 1 racing. I haven’t really thought about it much in the past several years, but I used to be an avid enthusiast of the sport when I was younger. In fact, back in 1990, I was a security guard at the finish line during the Montreal Grand Prix. When Ayrton Senna zoomed to victory, the crowd went mad and started to pour onto the tracks. I was so excited it took me a moment to remember I had to prevent the crowds from doing that.

It looks like the race will take place as planned April 22. Despite this, the global outrage at F1’s choice will likely last well beyond the end of the race. As Kevin Eason of the Times tweeted, “Whatever happens in  this weekend, F1 has underlined its unenviable image as amoral and greedy.” Maybe that will mean something in the future. I hope.

The race is a temporary focal point that is bringing global attention to a government that has systematically shrugged off its commitment to reform, despite assurances to the contrary after an independent commission reached its conclusions last fall (the full report is here). The death of protester Salah Habib Abbas last night is being treated as a homicide and is under investigation, but if it’s shown that he died at the hands of police, it will be another painful reminder that the crackdown against protesters will continue, regardless of the national and international criticisms levelled at the government.

The crowds taking to the streets will not dissipate, even after the F1 drivers and tourists leave Bahrain. The situation with the jailed hunger striker Abdulhadi al-Khawaja will reach a boiling point soon. He’s refused water and intravenous fluids, and after 73 days, he will either die soon or be released. With the appeal of his life sentence set for the day after the race, it seems unlikely that freedom will be granted so easily to a man who has suffered so much. But knowing him the way I do, he won’t back down: it will be either freedom or death. Either way, the people on the streets protesting will only come out in greater numbers and will only speak out more loudly with each passing day. 

The crowds are growing both physically and virtually. Earlier this morning I took a closer look at the people who have followed me on Twitter in the past month. Almost all are likely from Bahrain, their usernames a candid reflection of their aspirations: FreeAlKhawaja, Feb14, Bahraini protest, freedom4bahrain, oppressed_bh; the list goes on. They are most likely the same people who have taken to the streets and are finally saying “enough” and looking to spaces like Twitter for solidarity and the hope that someone is listening to them; they want to know that other people care. I wrote a short message to Nabeel Rajab, a tireless human rights leader in Bahrain. In it, I expressed my solidarity, and did not expect him to reply – he’s got more pressing issues to deal with. He wrote back, “Thanks brother and hope to meet some time soon.” I hope so too.

Speaking out against pieces of sh*t in Canada and abroad

Matt Price of the Huffington Post recently wondered in a blog why more Canadians aren’t losing it like Trudeau. The reference was to Trudeau’s recent outburst in the House of Commons calling Canada’s Environment Minister Peter Kent a “piece of shit.” The guy who stole my wallet last month is a piece of shit; Peter Kent is not. At least he shouldn’t have been called that in the House of Commons. Mr. Kent was more cowardly than shit-like. He was in no position to criticize NDP environment critic Megan Leslie for not attending the Durban climate conference. It was his government that prevented any delegates from other parties to attend the conference.

While I don’t think the House of Commons is the place for such language, I applaud Mr. Trudeau for bringing more media attention to the policies and practices our government is taking, apparently without much objection from many of its citizens. The Canada that the current government is creating is not one to be proud of, from reneging on the Kyoto Protocol, cutting funding for abortions, scrapping the gun registry, passing a crime bill that will likely do more harm than good, losing a seat on the UN Security Council, and systematically marginalizing aboriginal rights. For that last one, the UN special rapporteur on indigenous peoples James Anaya contacted the Canadian government about the “dire social and economic condition” about the Attawapiskat First Nation. The response from the government’s Aboriginal Affairs Minister: the special rapporteur’s statement “lacks credibility.” Smells like shit, and it’s not coming from the UN.

How does this “lack credibility”?

Don’t think this is going unnoticed, here in Canada or abroad. Fifteen years ago, I travelled to other countries and could be assured of a smile every time I said I was Canadian. Nowadays, most people frown, hesitate before speaking, and finally ask me: “What’s wrong with your country now?”

There’s plenty wrong with our country, but I’m also aware (and deeply thankful, but not thankful to this government) for the liberties I have. I can criticize the government because it’s my right. I don’t live in fear of being arrested or assaulted by the police if I say something against the government. I have freedom, I have liberty, I have freedom of expression, and I realize as I reflect on the realities in other countries that I don’t exercise my freedom of expression enough. I might not get to the point where I start name-calling government officials, but I should be more vocal about the things I care about. When it comes to respecting the human rights of all Canadians (and our right to a clean environment is intricately linked to our human rights as individuals and groups), it is shameful that the government dismisses any criticisms, from opposition parties to public outcry to the United Nations, and ploughs ahead with its own agenda. This is not a Canada I am proud of. This is not my Canada.

Blatant disregard for basic human rights – Article 3 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states we all have the right to life, liberty and security of the person – continues to tarnish progress in Canada and elsewhere in the world, even in this year of the Arab Spring. The death toll in Syria is over 5000 since protests began, violence has erupted again in Egypt following elections, and the oppression continues in Bahrain. When I think back at the year’s events, as so many of us do as the year’s end approaches, there is one issue above all that upsets me the most, and recent events have only made things worse. I am still angry at the arrest, imprisonment, mistreatment, and unfair trial of my friend and human rights defender Abdulhadi Alkhawaja, currently serving a life sentence in Bahrain for defending the rights of others. His daughter Zainab, clearly demonstrating very peacefully against the government at a roundabout last week, was handcuffed, dragged into a police van, and arrested. This is wrong. His arrest was wrong, her arrest is wrong; both should be free. Her lawyers were told yesterday, “What trial?” as they appeared in court. The leadership in Bahrain should think of implementing the recommendations put forward by the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry. When will the violence end, when will the common denominator that bonds us all – our humanity – be enough to stop the hatred? When will those in positions of power admit to their weaknesses, mistakes, and human rights violations so we can move on with our lives and focus on bettering ourselves and helping each other rather than oppressing those who dare to speak of human rights for all?

To those who have fought to claim your own rights and protect the rights of others, I respect and envy your courage. You are the voice of the fed up, the tired, the pissed off, the oppressed, the violated, the hurt. Speak up so that more can be inspired.