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Bahrain: Why Should the Media Care About One Man’s Fast?

By Preethi Nallu | Al Akhbar | April 21, 2012

Bahrain, with a total population of approximately 1.3 million, is smaller than most metropolitan cities in the world. But, over the past week the country has made headlines across global media. The fact that the Formula One Grand Prix is going to be held in the capital Manama this weekend while a majority of the island is besieged by protests, clashes, and arrests has become an ethical quandary with multiple dimensions.

The hunger strike of the country’s most well-known human rights activist, Abdulhadi al-Khawaja has finally “earned” the attention of worldwide media. Despite being in a prison cell, the hunger striker has become the beating pulse of protests in Bahrain, with his photos and posters splashed across the streets and banners calling for his immediate release. After months of torture and 70 days into a painfully prolonged “fast for freedom” al-Khawaja is finally “news.”

But long before the sporting event became an “angle” of focus, al-Khawaja and hundreds of thousands of people in Bahrain have been fighting for greater political rights with sparse attention from the media or the international community-at-large. Geopolitics, sectarian divides, and short attention spans overshadowed grave human rights abuses that have been ongoing for more than one year in Bahrain, without signs of near future reconciliation.

Here are reasons why Bahraini-Danish hunger striker al-Khawaja’s story has always been important, well before he entered this critical phase, where his time is now numbered in days or even hours.

As a man known to practically every household in Bahrain, he commands a mobilizing effect needed to carry on the pro-democracy protests that have been overshadowed by geopolitics involving the US and Iran. The Bahraini regime has taken away an important leader of the revolution because they are simply threatened by his singular presence on the streets that strengthens the voices of more than 70 percent of the population in the country. It is an act of cowardice.

Al-Khawaja has spent his entire adult life advocating for greater political rights for the majority population of Bahrain, starting as a university student in the United Kingdom.

This is not just al-Khawaja’s story. It is also the story of his two activist daughters, son-in-laws, brothers, and wife, all of whom have been persistently targeted by the government and arrested for their dissidence. His story is intertwined with hundreds of thousands of people who have been marching on the streets from Bahrain to London calling for his immediate release. Al-Khawaja’s story illustrates the powerful ties between the Al-Khalifa family in Bahrain and the Saudis, who would like to prevent a similar scenario in Saudi Arabia. The US government, that is in turn close allies with the Saudis, has been unabashedly silent on the issue while simultaneously calling for imminent action on Syria. His story is one that could cause a ripple effect in the Gulf States that continue to stifle protests with unhindered force.

The accusations against al-Khawaja of attempting “to overthrow the Government by force in liaison with a terrorist organisation working for a foreign country” have been unfounded. The “terrorist” organization in question is of course Hezbollah and the foreign country is Iran. The Shias of Bahrain do not wish to see Iranian/Hezbollah influence in their country. They do not wish to have an Islamic theocracy for a leadership. There has been no evidence, whatsoever, of exchanges between al-Khawaja or the February 14th coalition and Iranian/Hezbollah agents.

Al-Khawaja has spent his entire adult life advocating for greater political rights for the majority population of Bahrain, starting as a university student in the United Kingdom. He has been persistently targeted by the government of Bahrain even before he co-founded the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, formed not in Iran or Lebanon, but in Denmark, where al-Khawaja and his family sought political asylum for 11 years. He was repeatedly arrested and beaten for championing human rights and democracy, since his return to Bahrain in 2001, upon an official pardon from the king.

We, as a the media community, remained passive in the face of blatant injustice for a long time.

If the Bahraini government is looking for culpability, they should point toward Copenhagen where he received training as a human rights defender. But since al-Khawaja’s background hardly constitutes grounds for a life sentence based on “conspiring with foreign agents,” the al-Khalifa regime has sought the tried and tested strategy of manipulating sectarian divides. Based on al-Khawaja’s Shia identity and that of at least 70 percent of the population in Bahrain, whose voices have been stifled, they blame the Iranians and their purported aims to create a “Shia Crescent” across the Middle East.

Al-Khawaja must not be allowed to die.

His critical condition has already led to heightened tensions in a country, where protesters have been marching in tens of thousands for his immediate release. His death will lead to irreconcilable anger amongst the protesters who have been promised change again and again, but with no consequence. His death will create a fault line in the movement and minds of the youth who have been met only with resistance to change and oppression without accountability.

We, as the media community, have remained passive in the face of blatant injustice for a long time. We have failed to empower the tens of thousands in Bahrain by highlighting the story of one man’s plight. We have simply stood by until his penultimate moments.

But, It is not too late for us to look beyond the simple appeal of al-Khawaja’s hunger strike and render greater meaning to his struggle. We must learn to better decipher the current state of affairs in the Island Kingdom of Bahrain and the larger picture of how it affects the Gulf and beyond. We must maintain the momentum.

Preethi Nallu is a print and broadcast journalist with a special focus on human rights issues.

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April 21, 2012 - Posted by | Civil Liberties, Solidarity and Activism | , ,

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