It's a political prisoner's last card. Going on a hunger strike is a highly dangerous move, especially for people in fragile health.
Abdulhadi Al Khawaja - perhaps Bahrain's most prominent human rights defender - began a hunger strike in Bahrain's Jaw prison earlier this week. He is taking no food or drink except water and a little salt. He has asked not to be force fed.
Yesterday his blood sugar level had dropped to a dangerously low 1.8 and medical experts have told his family he is likely to experience seizures or end up in a coma within 15 days if he continues.
His daughters, Maryam and Zainab, and his successor as President of the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights, Nabeel Rajab, have been fiercely advocating for human rights in Bahrain to the international community since Abdulhadi's arrest in April 2011 for his part in the country's largescale protests for democracy.
Speaking to me today, Maryam said, "His blood sugar level is really low, we're told by medics he's in danger of having a heart attack at any time. He's reached a point where hunger striking seemed the only effective way to draw attention to the continuing problem of largescale arbitrary arrests. He understands the risks, and we know we might lose him."
Abdulhadi is a guy with a much deserved international reputation. He has worked for the Dublin-based human rights organization Frontline Defenders and is widely known in the Middle East and beyond as a leading activist. Although the soldiers wouldn't let me in when I turned up at the court for his military trial the month after he was arrested, it's clear the hearings were a sham. He should never have been tried, let alone tortured, convicted, and handed a life sentence. Abdulhadi's hunger strike is a response to the Bahraini authorities' use of arbitrary arrests, an ongoing human rights problem in Bahrain. Week after week fresh credible reports come through of people being seized without warrants. With few options left, he is using his last resort of protest and is putting his life on the line to help others.
If Bahrain is ever to become stable, it will eventually have to move beyond its current unrest and find a solution to its political crisis. It needs the leadership of experienced, peaceful civil society figures like Abdulhadi to figure out a meaningful reform process.
The U.S. the bilateral relationship with Bahrain is a mess. Just last month United States Assistant Secretary for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, Tom Mainowski was expelled from Bahrain. This month Congressman James McGovern wasn't even allowed in. Today the Bahraini government contradicted State Department claims that Malinowski has been invited back. But whether or not another Malinowski visit happens soon, the U.S. Government should publicly call for Abdulhadi's immediate release, for the release of all those in jail for peacefully expressing their views, and for an end to arbitrary arrest.