5 Apr 2012

‘Situation critical’ as Bahrain hunger striker nears death

As concerns grow for the life of leading Bahrain activist Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, a Dublin-based human rights group tells Channel 4 News violence will escalate in the kingdom if Abdulhadi dies.

Abdulhadi al-Khawaja (Picture courtesy of Frontline Defenders)

Mary Lawlor, the executive director of charity Front Line Defenders has recently returned from a trip to Bahrain where she hoped the authorities would rule Abdulhadi – who has now been on hunger strike for 57 days – could be released on bail pending a re-trial.

She told Channel 4 News the organisation has serious concerns for Abdulhadi’s health: “We did get to speak to him briefly when his lawyer called to tell Abdulhadi what had happened and the lawyer passed the phone to me.

“I pleaded with Abdulhadi to eat something but he told me politely but firmly he wouldn’t though he thanked us for our help.

The organisers of the grand prix have to speak to people in Bahrain, community leaders, independent journalists, human rights groups, to get a good sense of what is going on. Mary Lawlor

“He is clear, he is lucid and you get a sense of his strength but we’ve taken medical advice on his condition and doctors told us he is at serious risk of imminent organ failure.”

Freedom or death

Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, a former president of the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights, was convicted in June 2011 of charges of managing a terrorist organisation. He had been arrested during the early days of the uprising in Bahrain and was given a sentence of life imprisonment.

Abdulhadi is spending his 51st birthday in a clinic at the Bahrain interior ministry. He has said he will not eat until he is released or dies.

Human rights campaigners want to see a fresh trial carried out because they say Abdulhadi’s military trial was conducted unfairly and that he had been tortured.

“The calculation in Bahrain seems to be that violence will push the democratic genie back into the bottle. I don’t believe that will work. I am not sure it will work anywhere now, given the revolutions which have already taken place in Tunisia and Egypt.”

Read more: Channel 4 News Foreign Correspondent Jonathan Rugman compares four Arab uprisings

In March, 45 human rights organisations wrote to the King of Bahrain calling for Abdulhadi’s immediate release on humanitarian grounds.

Former Formula 1 Champion Damon Hill (Getty)

Grand prix

On Monday, a Bahrain court postponed making a decision on a re-trial until the day after the Bahrain grand prix, an event which was cancelled in 2011 after intense widespread criticism.

1996 Formula One Champion Damon Hill has again called for a rethink by F1 authorities amid continued protests in Bahrain. Mr Hill was one of those to call for the FIA to take a moral stand over the Bahrain race in 2011.

Ms Lawlor called on the sport’s authorities to see for themselves the situation in the gulf kingdom: “The organisers of the grand prix have to speak to people in Bahrain, community leaders, independent journalists, human rights groups, to get a good sense of what is going on. Despite what the authorities say, it is not ‘business as usual’.”

Protests have continued for over a year since initial unrest broke out as members of the majority Shia population called for the removal of the ruling minority Sunni monarchy. Reports say a bloody crackdown continues to be carried out by the Bahrain government.

On the eve of the first anniversary of the uprising, Bahrain’s ruler, King Hamad, told the nation in an address on state television that he remained committed to reforms launched a decade ago, a process the opposition has dismissed as cosmetic.

On 31 March a 22-year old citizen journalist was shot and died of his injuries after he was targeted while filming police officers. The Bahrain authorities have denied being responsible and have launched a murder investigation.

But as concerns grow for the health of Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, who may only have days to live, there are also worries for the stability of Bahrain. Mary Lawlor thinks the country could be approaching a tipping point: “If he dies in prison it would cause a great deal more unrest. Abdulhadi is a figurehead. His death would be tragic for him and his family and for Bahrain. The situation is critical.”