Tora Systad Tyssen
When Abdulhadi al-Khawaja on May 28th announced that his 110 days long hunger strike was over and that he now would start eating again, several sighs of relief were probably heard across Bahrain. Obviously, from his family and his loved ones who had feared that the hunger strike would eventually kill the Bahraini-Danish activist. But certainly also from the regime, which since the start of the strike seemed unable to decide how to handle the defiant prisoner.
After being arrested and convicted of trying to overthrow the regime last year, al-Khawaja has been one of the more high profiled political prisoners in Bahrain. Ever since he returned from political exile in Denmark in 1999, al-Khawaja has been challenging what he calls systematic human rights abuses from the Bahraini government, and has as a consequence of it been in and out of prison ever since. When he in 2004 was arrested for criticising the Prime Minister Sheikh Khalifa ibn Salman Al Khalifa for the country’s current economic problems and past human rights abuses, he was released shortly after by a royal pardon by the King. However, such a royal pardon was not given when he April 9th last year was arrested and charged for “organizing and managing a terrorist organisation”, “attempt to overthrow the Government by force and in liaison with a terrorist organisation working for a foreign country” and the “collection of money for a terrorist group”, the terrorist organization referred to being Bahrain Centre for Human Rights where al-Khawaja is one of the founders. After almost a year in prison, in February this year, he decided to stop eating.
Fuelled by writings of social media activists (including al-Khawajas close family members) and human rights organizations the hunger strike shortly received attention, also from the international media. Having the tragic personal situation of al-Khawaja to centre their articles around seemed to make it easier to cover the ongoing unrest in the Gulf kingdom. As al-Khawajas situation in the beginning was not life threatening, the government seemed to be on the fence about how to handle the issues. When I visited Bahrain in March a young politically active Sunni Muslim supporting the government commented on the situation saying that Abdulhadi al-Khawaja has been on a hunger strike for 29 days and he did not die yet. For Gods sake. Indicating that everyone would be better off if the activist would just, well, die. However, it seems now that everyone is better off by al-Khawaja eating.
As the 29 days doubled and the start date of the annual Formula 1 race in Bahrain was approaching quickly, the international media and political pressure on the Bahraini government was growing. The International Automobile Federation was contemplating cancelling the race in Bahrain for the second year in a row due to the political unrest and the uncertainty of the security situation. The Bahraini government and royal family were apparently doing all they could to calm the situation and ensure the international racers that their country was a safe destination. As the decision to go ahead with the race came, the top priority of the Bahraini regime was to minimize negative international media coverage in relation to it. For months international journalists had been refused access to the kingdom, but with the major sporting event coming up, media visas again had to be issued and protesters eyed the opportunity for extensive international attention.
One of the immediate issues that the government needed to handle was the al-Khawaja situation as negative media coverage of it was mounting, but a split within the government made that difficult. The foreign minister, a close ally of the king, was trying to reach a compromise where al-Khawaja would be sent abroad, most probably Denmark, for medical treatment (The Danish Foreign Minister Willy Søvndal had requested the prisoners transfer, citing his Danish co-citizenship. The Bahraini Supreme Judiciary Council dismissed the request). The foreign minister probably eyed the opportunity for some international diplomatic goodwill and more positive press coverage, but also seemed concerned with avoiding al-Khawaja becoming a martyr. The Prime Minister however, who was the object of al-Khawajas criticism back in 2004, used his influence to nullify the transfer order. Instead al-Khawaja was sent to another hospital under the control of the defence minister, and eventually, according to reports, force-fed.
Had al-Khawaja however been sent to Denmark and retrieved medical care there, it is difficult to say how that would have affected the activists still operating in Bahrain. Certainly, his strong demonstration of human will and stance against the regime was strengthened by the fact that he was within the borders of the country. Criticising from without is easy, but from within not necessarily so, hence the effect of it would not have been so strong. It is difficult inspiring a revolution in Bahrain from hospital facilities in Copenhagen. al-Khawaja has stated the fact that he was force-fed as one of the reasons why he now has decided to end his hunger strike, but more importantly he and the political unrest had received the wanted attention. So in a way everyone now wins some. The regime avoids having made al-Khawaja a martyr, whereas the protesters still have one of their strongest leaders close by, alive and ready to inspire further demonstrations. al-Khawajas imprisonment and life sentence however remains, and it will be interesting to see how long that sentence will withstand international diplomatic pressure for its sanctioning.