If you haven't heard about it already, the vice president of the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights was arrested after criticizing the Prime Minister at a seminar about Poverty and Economic Rights in Bahrain a few days ago. Below is the statement issued by Human Rights Watch (which I also fully endorse):
(New York, September 29, 2004) — Bahrain should immediately release prominent human rights activist `Abd al-Hadi al-Khawaja from detention, Human Rights Watch said today. Al-Khawaja was summoned to a police station and detained on Saturday, September 25, a day after he criticized Prime Minister Shaikh Khalifa Al Khalifa for the country’s current economic problems and past human rights abuses.
Al-Khawaja had made the remarks on Friday at the `Uruba Club in Manama during a Poverty and Economic Rights symposium sponsored by the Bahrain Center for Human Rights. Al-Khawaja, a vice-president of the center, is reportedly being held for investigation on charges that he violated provisions of Bahrain’s 1976 Penal Code that prohibits dissemination of “false or malicious news” that “damages the public interest” or “incites contempt” towards the government.
“Throwing people in jail for criticizing top officials is hardly compatible with the government’s boasts of democratic reform,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, executive director of the Middle East and North Africa division of Human Rights Watch. “With the arrest of `Abd al-Hadi al-Khawaja, the prime minister is reverting to the authoritarian ways that had given Bahrain such a bad name in the past.”
On Saturday, the same day al-Khawaja was detained, the authorities also ordered the closure of the `Uruba Club for 45 days, ostensibly because of an event a week earlier, on September 19, in which a speaker reportedly expressed the opinion that Kuwait belonged to Iraq.
Bahrain’s king, Shaikh Hamad bin `Isa Al Khalifa, has been responsible for instituting numerous reforms since he succeeded his father as ruler in 1999. However, these reforms have not included changes to provisions in the Penal Code that continue to allow the government to restrict freedom of expression and freedom of association. Shaikh Khalifa Al Khalifa, the king’s uncle, has been prime minister since Bahrain became independent in 1971. He was a key proponent of the 1976 Penal Code provisions giving the government wide latitude to suppress public criticism.
My personal opinon on this is that Al Khawaja's arrest flies right in the face of all the positive reforms that have been taking place in the country in the last few years, and he should be released immediately. That said however, from a strategic point of view I think Al Khawaja did not achieve a great deal by criticizing the Prime Minister, asides from the publicity associated with his arrest. I believe he can do much more to help the poor of Bahrain outside of a jail cell, than he can through arrests and hunger strikes. It is crucial for those of us who want to bring change to this country to be aware of the realities of the political landscape in which we operate and work accordingly. The Prime Minister will never resign under pressure from the opposition or the international media, so demanding this is useless when we could instead be doing something to help the poor.
On that note, I thought I'd share with you something else. When I was six years old I read a book of Aesop's Fables which contained the story of the North Wind and the Sun. I remember the words and the illustrations vividly as they have strongly influenced the way I make decisions during times of conflict. I think everyone can gain by applying the principles in this story.
The North Wind and the Sun disputed as to which was the most powerful, and agreed that he should be declared the victor who could first strip a wayfaring man of his clothes. The North Wind first tried his power and blew with all his might, but the keener his blasts, the closer the Traveler wrapped his cloak around him, until at last, resigning all hope of victory, the Wind called upon the Sun to see what he could do. The Sun suddenly shone out with all his warmth. The Traveler no sooner felt his genial rays than he took off one garment after another, and at last, fairly overcome with heat, undressed and bathed in a stream that lay in his path.