19th Aug 2019

Bahrain hunger striker prompts EU response

  • Bahrain's royal family refuses to release human rights activist Abdulhadi al-Khawaja (Photo: Bahrain Ministry of Foreign Affairs)

Entering his 63rd day of hunger strike, Bahraini-Danish activist Abdulhadi al-Khawaja has finally attracted public reactions from Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt and the spokesperson for EU foreign policy chief Catherine Asthon.

"What we're hearing now is that al-Khawaja's condition is very critical. And we continue our efforts at all levels," Thorning-Schmidt, who currently holds the rotating EU presidency, told reporters on Wednesday (11 April). The Danish ambassador to Bahrain was allowed a short, 20-minute visit with al-Khawaja at his military hospital bed on Tuesday.

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Family members say he may slip into a coma and risks cardiac arrest at any time. He has already lost some 25 percent of his body weight.

Ashton's spokesperson did not call for his release but instead urged "the Bahraini authorities to take all appropriate measures to find a humanitarian solution to Mr al-Khawaja's deteriorating health situation, as a matter of absolute urgency."

Al-Khawaja, the former Middle East and North Africa director of the Irish-based Frontline Defenders Rights organisation, was sentenced to life in prison along with seven other activists following their arrest last April. Each was charged in June with a range of offenses related to their role in peaceful demonstrations in Bahrain in February and March 2011.

At the time, the senior advisor to EU foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton, Robert Cooper, defended Bahrain's security forces after they opened fire on protesters with live ammunition in the capital's Pearl Square.

Shortly after Cooper's intervention, al-Khawaja was detained and reportedly tortured. He was admitted to the Bahrain Defence Force Hospital in April last year with a cracked jaw and skull, requiring several operations.

The small island-kingdom is ruled by a US-and-Saudi-Arabia-backed Sunni regime headed by the royal Khalifa family. But the Shia majority is demanding democratic reforms that would overturn the royal status quo.

The Gulf island is host to the US Navy's 5th Fleet and is strategically important to Western-backed initiatives to counter Iranian power in the region.

Ongoing clashes between the opposition and Bahraini security forces have reportedly resulted in some 50 deaths over the past 14 months.

In the meantime, the country is still being courted by EU glitterati. The Queen of England invited its King al-Khalifa to celebrate the 60th anniversary of her rule at the Diamond Jubilee in the UK in June.

The UK government also approved the sale of military equipment valued at more than €1.2 million in the months that followed the uprising last year. The weapons included licenses for gun silencers, weapons sights, rifles, artillery and components for military training aircraft, reports the Guardian.

The island is scheduled to host the Formula 1 Grand Prix race on 22 April. The same event was cancelled last year amid the crackdown. But promise of reform prompted organisers to resinstate the race.

"The government promised changes last year but no changes have taken place because there is no incentive to make them. And tortures are still taking place," said Maryam al-Khawaja, head of the foreign relations office at the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights.

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