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. 

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.

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Demonstration by human rights defenders for Abdulhadi’s release

It’s a Bird! It’s a Plane! It’s Superman, the non-American!

So Superman has decided to renounce his American citizenship. TFacebook group boycotting Time Warner, publishers of the comic. It turns out that Superman went to Tehran to demonstrate on the streets with protesters and has realized that fighting for “Truth, justice and the American way” is “not enough anymore.”

he decision, at least according to the comments flying around on the Internet, is generally frowned upon. There is even a

I say good for you, Superman. Or more precisely, good going DC Comics for addressing the broader issue of America’s uneven foreign policy. The American government is idly watching hundreds of Bahraini demonstrators being arrested, tortured, killed or sentenced to death or life in prison. The government is not showing a strong stance in condemning the actions of the Bahraini government, a country that cosily hosts the US Fifth Fleet. A different story in Egypt, where initial flip-flopping on their position vis-a-vis the unfriending of Hosni Mubarak left the rest of the world wondering what role the US wanted to play in the Middle East. They’ve finally shown a firm stance against Libya’s leader, but where were they when Cote d’Ivoire descended into chaos for months following a disputed election (and is still in a relative state of disrepair)?

I’m not saying the US should intervene everywhere. The US failure in Somalia was enough to squirm at the thought of any military intervention under the banner of democracy. Past atrocities like the Rwandan genocide clearly show that humanitarian assistance and the responsibility to protect the citizens of another country is not measured simply by the number of lives that should be saved. There are political and economic interests at play as well.

So if Superman decides to snub his nose at his American citizenship, I say let him. (As one commenter wryly pointed out on a website discussing the issue, “How did S become an american citizen? Last I heard he was clearly an illegal alien, born on planet Krypton, and arrived here without a visa under questionable circumstances”.) While his renunciation is a clear criticism of American foreign policy, it is also a reflection of a more encompassing (and overwhelmingly positive) notion of being a “global citizen.” With national crises in Libya affecting oil prices around the world and the destruction from the tsunami in Japan affecting the global economy, considering ourselves global citizens is not that far off the mark. It’s an affirmation that we are becoming increasingly interconnected, and also that we have a shared responsibility to care for each other and the world we live in. Superman is merely showing a greater awareness of human rights values, “Truth, justice, and the human rights way” if you will, and I think that’s perfectly OK. 

Postscript, a couple of days later. A reader kindly provided this video that sheds light on another possible reason for Superman’s announcement. Apparently Time Warner is about to lose its copyright on Superman. Well, let’s hope the reasons are not solely attributable to a legal dispute.


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