The case of Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, the Bahraini—Danish freedom activist who is
serving a life sentence, is both encouraging and frightening.
For decades, Bahrainis – and populations in other states in the Middle East –
have had every reason to rebel in order to achieve democracy and political
But in the commotion resulting from violence, terrorism and an abundance of
wars in the region, there has been a tendency to think that prevailing
dictatorships and the lack of political responsibility in most Arab states,
is a stabilising and popularly accepted state of affairs.
Now we know that this is an illusion.
One may ask why the Khawaja story is an encouraging one. It is inspiring
because a courageous and non-violent al-Khawaja has put himself in the
vanguard of a population’s demand to choose their own government. This in a
state in which the Khalifa royal family has, since the country’s
independence, seen its right to rule as inherent.
But it is also a frightening story. It is alarming because al-Khawaja is
living testimony of the price that too many supporters of democracy must pay
in the Arab world. He has not only been sentenced for a political
transgression, but has also had to suffer torture.
Irrespective of these abuses, he has maintained his dignified defence of the
right to freedom.
For these reasons, al-Khawaja is an obvious recipient of the Politiken Freedom
Prize 2012, which one of his daughters will receive on his behalf.
Al-Khawaja’s case is also a challenge for Danish and European foreign policy.
His Danish passport means that he is encompassed by the European Union’s
duty to protect its citizens.
The Danish foreign service has been persistent in its efforts to have
al-Khawaja released for treatment at a Danish hospital as a result of the
effects of his hunger strike earlier this year and the torture that has been
meted out to him. Bahrain’s foreign minister promised to hand him over on
March 14, but outrageously went back on his promise.
Al-Khawaja made the sensible choice of threatening to live rather than
threatening to take his own life. This has left both al-Khawaja and the EU
in the complicated situation that the political pressure to have him
released has waned – despite the fact that both the need and grounds for his
release remain unchanged.
Al-Khawaja still needs hospital treatment following his torture in Bahrain.
And he remains imprisoned for a political crime.
His compatriots remain under censorship, are subject to political and
religious discrimination, are banned from demonstrating and remain unable to
bring their rulers to justice.
They too have a right to the political freedoms for which al-Khawaja is such
an inspiring advocate.
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