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Bahrain Opinion: Why Abdulhadi Alkhawaja May Die On Hunger Strike

Abdulhadi Alkhawaja, a soft-spoken Bahraini who turned 51 yesterday, is a prominent human rights activist who has received  international recognition for his advocacy. He is the co-founder and former Preisdent of the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights. He has been Middle East and North Africa Protection Coordinator of Front Line Defenders, a member of the International Advisory Network in the Business and Human Rights Resource Center, and a member of the Advisory Board of the Damascus Center for Human Rights Studies. 

Alkhawaja has long been under pressure for his activism, but on 8 April 2011 --- as the Bahraini uprising was being brutally put-down by the regime --- he was arrested. This time, he would be sentenced to life imprisonment for his work.  

I have spoken to people who know him. To people who love him. To people who call him "Dad". And what I have heard are stories of a man conscious of a realityof which few are aware. Sometimes, it takes one case of unimaginable suffering to become public for people to pay attention to the thousands who suffer behind closed borders, biased news coverage, and immoral and indignant governments. 

Bahrain is ruled by a family which monopolises almost every corridor of power. The King is not just the King, he is also a blood relative of the Prime minister, the Foreign Minister, and even the former Media Attaché in the Bahraini Embassy in Washington DC.

Questioning this near-absolute monopoly, which has instituted a system that undermines and marginalises the country's majority Shia population, has resulted in suffering not just for those Shi'a but also for some Sunnis and other residents of the Kingdom

Ask those who have not been swayed by the incessant State propaganda that turns protesters for democracy and human rights into thugs and terrorists --- you will find that the use of generous amounts of tear gas on residential neighborhoods is not just hurting "thugs" and "terrorists". Tear gas does not differentiate between Shia, Sunni, Christian, and Jew. It seeps through the nooks and crannies and cracks and crevices in every home and finds all people. 

Alkhawaja knows this. He also knows that Bahrain's uprising has been bloodier per capita than all other uprisings, save the civil wars in Syria and Libya. He knows that Bahrain is regularly blanketed in the gas that has killed at least 35 people in the past year. He knows that hundreds of Bahrainis linger in prison for asking for rights. And he knows that all this needs to be conveyed to the outside world. 

The only way he can do anything about this is by making himself suffer.  

It is hard to explain in 140 characters on Twitter how protesters, injured after they are directly shot with tear gas canisters, are unable to go to hospitals because they will be arrested. Or how doctors who treated demonstrators injured by the gunshots of the security forces are on trial for saving lives. But you can convey in those 140 characters that  a human rights activist, sentenced to life imprisonment for taking part in peaceful demonstrations, is dying in a hunger strike. 

Today will be Alkhawaja's 58th day on that strike, with his condition steadily deteriorating. In those 58 days, he has been transformed from the co-founder of the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights into the embodiment of each Bahraini suffering at the hands of the regime, which uses the world's need for a stable Persian Gulf to crack down on peaceful protest. His emaciated body - he has lost 1/4 of his body weight - is a testament to what his people are going through. 

This is why Bahrainis on social media have rallied around Alkhawaja. This is why protests are held several times a month for his release and that of other political prisoners. Alkhawaja has become the rallying cry for the reform-minded Bahraini.

The simple story of Alkhawaja's perseverance, in the face of the dismissal of his situation by the Bahraini regime and its Western allies, is a lesson in what the Arab Spring has meant for the rest of the world. Others may embody that Spring in Cairo's Tahrir Square, Habib Bourguiba Avenue in Tunis, or in the heart of Tripoli, but the people of Bahrain do not --- not because they are any less brave or deserving or right, but because it is not in the interest of others inside and outside the kingdom. It is easier to deal with the Al Khalifa family, which has ruled Bahrain for centuries, than with the many seeking political, economic, and social recognition. 

This makes Alkhawaja's ongoing hunger strike a test not only for his strength but for the movement inside his country, for the regime over it, and for the allies of that regime. If Alkhawaja dies and the world continues its silence in the face of repression against Bahrainis who have continued to protest for over a year, this would effectively be a blank check for the regime to arrest, abuse, and even kill. 

But if Alkhawaja's strike manages to make the world take notice of Bahrain, then the hope for reform might live. 

Even if he does not.

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