Frontline Defenders: Zainab Al Khawaja’s article about her father

“When my father started his current hunger strike, he was already weakened as he had just ended a seven-day hunger strike 48 hours before. On the 10th day of this hunger strike my father was taken to the hospital, having collapsed in prison. He was taken back to the hospital on day 13, again on day 17 and again on day 24. Each time the doctor pleaded with him to just eat something, anything; each time my father refused, reiterating that he would only leave the prison free or dead.

That previous seven-day strike, undertaken with his 13 co-defendants/co-inmates, was made to protest the ongoing imprisonment of those who had taken to the streets last February and March and were being punished for demanding civil liberties and democracy. For my father, it was personal as much as political — his younger brother was sitting in the same prison as him. His two sons-in-law were arrested with him and also subjected to torture. His wife was fired from her job of 10 years by order of the Ministry of Interior.

My father is not a fanatic; or rather he is only a fanatic when it comes to believing that every person should have her or his basic human rights respected in full. He has worked his whole life for this principle, by documenting and reporting abuse, by training others to do the same, by working to effectively campaign for human rights, by speaking out against abuse and by joining with others to peacefully protest when rights are systemically trampled.

Following his arrest, my father refused to give up on the struggle for human rights; he continued his human rights work behind the walls of a military prison, at a site that is not found on any map. My father paid a high price for speaking out on several occasions in the military trial about the torture he and others were subjected to. When his two-month solitary confinement came to an end my father engaged in discussions in the prison, continuing to spread human rights education and the example of nonviolent protest. My father gave the other political prisoners a full course in human rights. He then asked the commander of the prison for paper so he could write certificates for his fellow inmates to document that they had completed a human rights education course.

When I was growing up with my sisters, and we were living outside Bahrain, my dad would talk about the day we would return and the kind of country we would one day live in — where all our rights would be respected, where we could live with dignity and freedom. We did return to Bahrain in 2001, but what we returned to was not my father’s dream. Though not the nightmare it has since become, it was clear even then that there were limits to individual rights and as a community, one group in Bahrain faced systemic discrimination. My father could not live with that, and so he did what he always did — he started working for human rights and opened the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights.

When the uprising in Bahrain started last 14 February, inspired by events in Tunisia and Egypt, my father quit his job with international human rights organisation Front Line Defenders and went to Pearl Roundabout to join the youth, who seemed all at once to have heard his message. This may have been the closest my father got to his dream, those days at Pearl, but now he is caught in the worst of nightmares. But even here he is teaching, leading by example and proving to be the most dangerous kind of men — the kind whose ideals cannot be shut away.

My father is Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja. He has been beaten, jailed, tortured, abused, sentenced to life in prison in a sham court trial, harassed, intimidated, had his family punished and seen friends and loved ones face harm. The last person who saw my father found him very thin, barely able to walk, stand or even sit up. But they also saw a sparkle in his eye. My father has spent his life struggling for others; he would rather die fighting the only way he can, than to ever give up on his dream. My father is Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja, and he is on the 26th day of his hunger strike for freedom.”



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