Bahrain seems to have come to an impasse. Brutal repression, torture, killings, unfair trials and media censorship has not been able to silence a mass movement for change as was clear from the huge numbers demonstrating in Manama in the last weeks. And yet the Government is apparently paralysed and unable to engage in serious reform.
The mass demonstrations reinforce the fear and loathing of a privileged elite who have done so well out of autocratic rule. The longest serving unelected Prime Minister in the world is clearly an obstacle to any progress and yet he clings grimly to power. And the Saudi Arabians pull the hardliners strings
It is in this context that human rights defender Abdulhadi Alkhawaja announced a hunger strike unto “freedom or death.” Abdulhadi is my friend and former colleague at Front Line Defenders.
I know him to be a person of the greatest integrity and courage. He was arrested, brutally tortured and subjected to a show trial last year. He was sentenced to life in prison. He has already subjected his torture weakened body to four hunger strikes. He has again been hospitalised because of concerns for his health. Abdulhadi’s family have not been told which hospital he is in. His daughter Zainab has also been detained following a peaceful protest.
I know that Abdulhadi does not seek death. He is a person full of hope and love for his family and his community. But I know that he will be hugely frustrated by the ongoing death toll which has seen a teenager tortured to death and many others die from tear-gas inhalation. It seems he is seeking to force the issue in the most desperate way a prisoner can.
It is time for the world to speak out forcefully about human rights in Bahrain. Much attention has rightly been focused on the terrible events in Syria, but Bahrain also requires concerted international attention if tragedy is to be averted. The international community needs to move beyond encouraging statements and engage in a serious diplomatic initiative to deliver a peaceful outcome.
The elements of a political solution are clear. Prisoners must be released, the Prime Minister must take responsibility for the killings and torture committed by Government forces and resign. There needs to be serious political reform leading to a constitutional monarchy with an elected Government, respect for human rights and guarantees for minorities. There is still time for hope, but it is running out.