Jailed Bahraini activist on hunger strike for "dignity"

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A Bahraini woman runs for cover from tear gas fired by riot police during an anti-government rally on 19 March 2013 in the village of Belad al-Qadeem, in a suburb of Manama. (Photo: AFP - Mohammed al-Shaikh)

Published Monday, March 25, 2013

A jailed Bahraini rights activist who launched an open-ended hunger strike eight days ago after being denied visitation rights has published a letter explaining her actions.

Zainab al-Khawaja, who is serving a six-month prison sentence for “insulting” a police officer and participating in unsanctioned protests, began refusing food and water on March 17 after prison authorities prevented her from seeing her three-year-old daughter, Jude.

Authorities wanted to punish the political prisoner, she wrote, for refusing to be humiliated by wearing a jumpsuit.

“When I was placed in a cell with fourteen people – including two convicted murderers – and I was handed orange prison clothes, I knew I couldn’t put them on without having to swallow a little bit of my dignity,” Khawaja wrote.

“Not wearing the convicts’ clothes, because I have committed no crime, that became my small act of civil disobedience. Not letting me see my family and my three-year-old daughter, that has been their punishment,” she added. “That is why I am on hunger strike.”

In the letter, she wrote that her jailers told her they would allow her to see her child if she obeys their orders and wears the prison clothes. But she insists that if she obeys, “Jude won’t be seeing her mother, but a broken version of her.”

Khawaja’s father, Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, announced a hunger strike on March 18 in solidarity with his daughter, and is also refusing to wear prison garments. Abdulhadi, one of Bahrain’s most prominent human rights activists, is serving a life sentence for “plotting against the state.”

“[Prison authorities] told them that if you want to have your rights, you have to wear this prison suit like a criminal so they can humiliate them,” Yousif al-Muhafda, deputy head of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights who is close to the activists, told Al-Akhbar.

“They were arrested for speaking out [against the government],” Muhafda said, himself facing fresh criminal charges after being arrested at a protest on Saturday.

Muhafda said that a medic who examined Zainab three days ago warned that her blood sugar was dangerously low, and that chances are high should could soon fall into a coma.

Bahrain has jailed dozens of activists, medics, lawyers and journalists in the wake of a popular uprising that erupted in February 2011.

More than 80 people have been killed since the start of the uprising.

A Saudi-led Gulf force entered the island in March 2011 to help crush the rebellion, but the country still witnesses almost daily protests.

The small but strategic kingdom is home to US Fifth Fleet.



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