Bahrain Abuses: where is Abdulhadi Al Khawaja? (Being force-fed?)

Friday, 27th April 2012

Abdulhadi Al Khawaja with his daughter Maryam, who was my student in Postcolonial Literature at the University of Bahrain in 2008. Today’s GDN says that Abdulhadi “tried to” give up taking water. So who stopped him?

Where is Abdulhadi Al Khawaja? Evidence from today’s Gulf Daily News, the regime’s English language propaganda sheet suggests he’s being force-fed.

The world-renowned prisoner of conscience’s close family and lawyer have heard nothing from him since Monday afternoon, and have been unable to contact him at the Bahrain Defense Force Hospital, his last known whereabouts. International human rights activists have been similarly rebuffed.

Abdulhadi is hunger striking against a life sentence imposed upon him by what Amnesty International describe as a “sham” military tribunal relating to trumped-up charges of terrorism, and plotting to overthrown the Bahrain regime.

To the civilized world he is a prisoner of conscience. The US State Department, whose position on Bahrain is showing growing impatience with the Al Khalifa regime, specifically urged the Bahrain authorities to “consider all available options” in the Al Khawaja case in a press statement on the Bhrain crisis published on 25th April:

Specifically, we urge the government to consider urgently all available options to resolve the case of Abdulhadi al-Khawaja. We also renew our call for the government, opposition parties, and all segments of Bahraini society to engage in a genuine dialogue leading to meaningful reforms that address the legitimate aspirations of all Bahrainis.

 “Where is Al Khawaja, killers?!”

Today should be the 79th day of Al Khawaja’s hunger strike. By way of comparison, the 1981 IRA hunger strikers, including the Sinn Fein MP Bobby Sands, died after 59 to 73 days.

Indian environmental activist  Swami Nigamanand died on 13th June 2011 after 115 days on hunger strike, although this is an unusually long time to survive under hunger strike conditions (Nigamanand was a sadhu, a Hindu holy man, trained in yogic techniques of extreme fasting):

So where is Abdulhadi Al Khawaja? Three possibilities spring to mind:

  • He has died
  • He has become comatose
  • He is being force-fed
Over the past two days security measures similar to those that preceded the Saudi-led intervention of 17th March 2011 have been enacted, including the cordoning-off of Shia majority villages, and the preemptive detention of activists.
Certainly, the death of Abdulhadi Al Khawaja would seriously escalate the current Bahrain crisis, it could be that the regime is bracing itself for this, awaiting a moment when world attention has been distracted by other significant news.
An alternative is that he is being held incommunicado while he is being force-fed, in the hope that he can be kept alive long enough for the divided Al Khalifa family to arrive at a consensus regarding his deportation from Bahrain. Abdulhadi holds duel Bahraini and Danish citizenship.

Evidence that Abdulhadi is being force-fed comes from an article entitled “Activist in high spirits”, which appeared in today’s Gulf Daily News:

Its nice to see the GDN acknowledge that Abdulhadi is an “activist” rather than a “terrorist”. A journalist with an investigative backbone might be interested in why a mere “activist” has been sentenced to life imprisonment.

Not so GDN’s Alicia de Haldevang. According to Ms de Haldevang, he is only “allegedly” on hunger strike, having, she says “been drinking a nutritional supplement for the past two days and has been receiving fluids intravenously throughout his protest”, according to “well-placed sources”.

Of the record, de Haldevang elaborates on this, stating that her source (she only mentions one) is a member of Abdulhadi’s medical team who she “trusts”. She does not give a name.

Reiterating the discredited charges against Abdulhadi, she makes no mention of his international status as a prisoner of conscience. Instead, she continues:

“…his lawyer at one point claiming he might have died and his family this week alleging he had disappeared from the BDF Hospital where he is being held….”

Despite de Haldevang’s protestations to the contrary, nobody employed to write for the GDN would have the freedom to express a private opinion on such a weighty matter as Abdulhadi’s hunger strike. De Haldevang’s role is to send out the messages that the regime wants her to send out, in this case to quash any “rumours” that Abdulhadi may have died.

De Haldevang takes a strong interest in Abdulhadi’s nutrition, mentioning by name “Ensure”, the nutritional drink that Abdulhadi is supposed to be “taking”:

At the beginning of her piece, she says that he is “drinking” the supplement, but in paragraph five he is “taking” it. “Taking” it in what sense?  Perhaps this image of the force feeding kit used against Guantanamo Bay hunger strikers can help answer the question of exactly how Abdulhadi is “taking” Ensure. Below is a photograph of a force feeding kit used at Guantanamo Bay:

File:Force-feeding kit.jpg

This image is from the US Department of Defence:

Note the cans of “Ensure”, the very “nutritional drink” that de Haldevang mentions in her GDN article.

The force feeding kit is supplied by Corpak Medical Systems:

Medical ethicists in the USA were vociferous in their condemnation of force feeding in Guantanamo:

Current [Department of Defence] instructions on force-feeding directly contradict the explicit ethical positions of both the American Medical Association (AMA) and the World Medical Association (WMA).

Eventually, force feeding was abandoned at Guantanamo. It had only been possible there because of Gitmo’s ambiguous legal status as a US off-shore military site where the military ruled the roost yet the laws and norms of the judicial system of the USA and international law were deemed not to apply.

It was a shame on the USA it set up and allowed Guantanamo, but the “terror crisis” mentality that enabled the Gitmo concentration camp also allowed Arab world juntas like the Bahrain regime to rehabilitate their use of torture.

At the end of the day, the Guantanamo hunger strikers were only demanding that those imprisoned there would be treated properly under the Geneva Conventions on the humanitarian treatment of prisoners of war:

“Laa tansaa”, “Do not forget”:

Going back to Bahrain, I note that in Arabic the verb “drinking” can also be used for “smoking” tobacco in a pipe, one “drinks” a shisha. I am curious as to the verb that would appear if a US force feeding, which involves a different sort of pipe, manual were translated into Arabic. Is suspect this language has found its way into de Haldevang’s article, her “source” being probably information she was supplied by the Bahrain government.

My point here is that, in the warped, denial-focused mindset of the regime’s torturers, they could “honestly” say that Abdulhadi was, with reference to Arabic, “drinking” this Ensure shit when in fact he was being force-fed it. When they go to meet their maker they rely on the forlorn hope that God is the same sort of pedantic hair-splitter that they are.

A shisha pipe, from which one “drinks”. Spot the resemblance to the force feeding kit.

Most tellingly, de Haldevang adds “…nurses did say he tried to stop taking water two days ago….”


Abdulhadi’s family confirm he refused to take water around the time of the Formula 1 blood-race. Nobody can survive more than four days without water. Is this what prompted the regime to force feed Abdulhadi? Is this why Abdulhadi is being held incommunicado?

Or did he fall into a coma and the regime’s panic reaction was to force feed him while they tried to bring him round? Even moderate Al Khalifa sources genuinely don’t seem to know where he is.

De Haldevang continues:

“…a Bahraini official told the GDN that Mr Al Khawaja’s case was already subject to due process – pointing to the fact that an appeal against his conviction was currently underway in the Cassation Court…A verdict in the appeal, which has been lodged on behalf of all 21 defendants, is expected to be delivered at a hearing on Monday.”

I’ll pass the opportunity to comment on the idea that “due process” exists in Bahrain today. Suffice to say a real journalist would have brought that up. But then a real journalist wouldn’t be working for the GDN.

So what is the regime’s game-plan? I suggest it is to keep Abdulhadi alive over the weekend by force feeding him incommunicado so that the world won’t know that’s going on, in the hope that moderates in the regime can convince hardliners to tell the puppet Cassation Court to strip Abdulhadi of his Bahraini citizenship and deport him to Denmark?

The World Medical Association made its Declaration of Malta in 1991. This was revised in 1992 and 2006. The Declaration states:

Physicians should respect individuals’ autonomy. This can involve difficult assessments as hunger strikers’ true wishes may not be as clear as they appear. Any decisions lack moral force if made involuntarily by use of threats, peer pressure or coercion. Hunger strikers should not be forcibly given treatment they refuse. Forced feeding contrary to an informed and voluntary refusal is unjustifiable.

It continues:

‘Benefit’ and ‘harm’. Physicians must exercise their skills and knowledge to benefit those they treat. This is the concept of ‘beneficence’, which is complemented by that of ‘non-maleficence’ or primum non nocere. These two concepts need to be in balance. ‘Benefit’ includes respecting individuals’ wishes as well as promoting their welfare. Avoiding ‘harm’ means not only minimising damage to health but also not forcing treatment upon competent people nor coercing them to stop fasting.


Physicians attending hunger strikers can experience a conflict between their loyalty to the employing authority (such as prison management) and their loyalty to patients. Physicians with dual loyalties are bound by the same ethical principles as other physicians, that is to say that their primary obligation is to the individual patient…Physicians must remain objective in their assessments and not allow third parties to influence their medical judgement. They must not allow themselves to be pressured to breach ethical principles, such as intervening medically for non-clinical reasons.

Therefore any physicians involved in the  force feeding of Abdulhadi are in clear breach of international medical ethics. Furthermore, de Haldevang’s unnamed “source”, if this source really is a medical professional, is in breach of a further aspect of medical ethics, patient confidentiality:

The duty of confidentiality is important in building trust but it is not absolute. It can be overridden if non-disclosure seriously harms others. As with other patients, hunger strikers’ confidentiality should be respected unless they agree to disclosure or unless information sharing is necessary to prevent serious harm. If individuals agree, their relatives and legal advisers should be kept informed of the situation.

De Haldevang’s article provides strong evidence that Abdulhadi is being force fed, yet this is no thanks to her journalistic skills. Rather, evidence emerges only through a forensic taking apart  of the words what she wrote, perhaps unaware of their import.

This is a story about a man who (according to the BICI) was seized from his home, beaten within an inch of his life, systematically tortured, sentenced to life imprisonment on spurious charges, and has been on hunger strike for 79 days is described in this propaganda sheet as being “in good spirits”.

To show it is serious about reform, the Bahrain regime should quash the trumped-up charges and release Abdulhadi unconditionally, compensating him and his family for the torture he has received.

The supine UK government must follow the lead of the US State Department in calling for humane action in Abdulhadi’s case.

A mural in Northern Ireland commemorating hunger striker Bobby Sands, MP. According to official British records from 1981, Sands died of “self-starvation.” In fact, the 1981 Hunger Strike gave a huge boost to the morale of the Nationalist movement in Northern Ireland at that time. No doubt the Khalifa regime would stop at nothing to prevent something similar happening in Bahrain, even force feeding.


21 thoughts on “Bahrain Abuses: where is Abdulhadi Al Khawaja? (Being force-fed?)

  1. Alicia de Haldevang simply reported what she had been told. If it turns out that what her source says is true then we all now know that he is being force fed and this piece of information has been made public which one would think is a good thing.

  2. Well if what they are told turns out to be true then wouldn’t that be uncovering the truth? It’s not as though as anyone outside the hospital/government actually knows the truth right now so people need all the information, whether true or not, they can get and then we can perhaps piece it together. It’s not as though she can do much else in Bahrain and under the GDN’s name. Also if it was a nurse who was in breach of patient confidentiality then that would be why she didn’t name them.

  3. Also, by the way, the GDN comes out with rubbish from different journalists being made to write it every day. Why are you choosing this article and this journalist in particular? Why not focus on the fact that they could possibly be force feeding Al Khawaja?

    • If you read the article that’s what it’s about, Al Khawaja, not your friend. My interest in this particular article is that, reading carefully between the lines, it provides strong evidence that he is indeed being force fed. The man, a prisoner of conscience, has effectively disappeared from view. What’s happened to him is important….

  4. Well sure while you’ve addressed the issue a lot of it seems like a pointless smear campaign against someone who was simply doing their job. Don’t make it seem as though I’m only saying this because I know her. I would say it regardless. I’m just trying to understand what you have against her in particular. Besides, when you clearly poach for information from me under the guise of ‘concern’ then I’m bound to think it dubious.

    • I don’t even know the woman. I wouldn’t recognise her if I bumped into her in the street. “I was only doing my job” is no defense. If she hopes to have a job in serious journalism I’d advise her to distance herself from the GDN.

    • I’ve also toned down the part I think you object to. But my concern remains: life in Bahrain is deeply corrupting of professional ethics and best practice, be the profession law, the media, academia, education, or whatever. Anyone who really cares about journalism ought to have nothing to do with things like the GDN.

  5. MIke, you need to get your article to FCO and US state Dept as well as to Denmark FM. Such people are well able to weigh up the information you give so coherently. There is a lack of ability amongst many Bahrain people to assess information in a rounded intelligent way.
    This skill is taught, fostered and encouraged in our top universities but such an approach seems to be missing especially amongst progov people, in Bahrain. People are fed propaganda and swallow it, so that mindset is very much at the root of many present problems.
    The PM is convinced there is no human rights agendum and promotes this false idea. Just as he brainwashes his gullible supporters and manipulates them by pandering to their greed, he believes a particular person is influencing the pro democracy people. He is seemingly unaware there are those who can think or themselves and can see through articles like the one written on GDN.

    • Linda, I think it is unfair to say that “There is a lack of ability amongst many Bahrain people to assess information in a rounded intelligent way” – it is probably better to say, in the case of the media, that there is a lack of availability.

  6. Firstly, the rules of the NUJ do not count in Bahrain and the GDN does work within the laws of the country for better or for worse.

    Secondly, media ethics lessons in MAs are not always compulsory. And I’m not quite sure why you’re holding the UK media system up on a pedestal unless you actually aren’t following the Leveson Inquiry at all.

    Thirdly, these two comments (ignoring the fact that you’ve spelt Alicia’s name wrong here):

    “Not so GDN hack Alacia de Haldevang, who seems more interested in helping the Bahrain regime disseminate its propaganda to the English-speaking world.”

    “De Haldevang’s article provides strong evidence that Abdulhadi is being force fed, yet this is no thanks to her journalistic skills. Still she continues to receive a salary for writing for the GDN propaganda sheet, actively and uncritically promoting the Bahrain regime’s line. Rather, we discover the sad reality through the words what she wrote, perhaps naivley unaware of their import.”

    We could say that you are guilty of defamation as you accuse her of wanting to simply help the regime and “disseminate its propaganda”, followed by a paragraph which implies you think her naive and incompetent, which would quite possibly expose her to contempt and/or ridicule, lower her reputation in the minds of right-thinking members of society and disparage her in her profession. Malicious falsehood, too, in this case, as if you have managed to disparage her in her profession then you will also have potentially caused her financial loss.

    All I’m trying to say is you could make your valid point of how Bahrain’s system compromises a person’s professional ethics without naming and shaming people.

    Also, after all your questioning of Alicia’s ethics you go on to say that she could well be right!

    I genuinely don’t understand why you felt this part of your article necessary.

    • This is getting wearisome. I’m not interested in what pertains in the Bahrain dictatorship today, but international best practice. NUJ accredited courses all cover media ethics.

      Frankly, I find it outrageous that your friend can write for the propaganda sheet of a repressive regime, then expect to enroll on a postgraduate Journalism course at a prestigious university with the assumption that doing so would be unproblematic.

      I’m not holding up “the UK media system”, whatever that’s supposed to be, as an example to anyone. The point is that professionally accredited Journalism courses in British universities all cover ethics.

      That said, the Leveson Inquiry into ethics and the press simply would not be taking place were it not for persistent, high quality and brave journalism undertaken by genuine UK investigative journalists, notably The Guardian.

      The contrast with the Bahrain regime’s propaganda sheets couldn’t be greater.

      • If you were so concerned about international best practice and Alicia’s ‘questionable ethics’ then you would think you would be happy she is enrolling on such a course. The fact she is enrolling implies she doesn’t assume she already knows everything about journalism and international best practice but wants to.

        The Guardian cannot be faulted, sure, but journalists on all the other papers have also all been to these British universities. It concerns me more that they went from prestigious universities into the workplace only to hack phones and push media organisations’ own agendas. You can’t exactly say that politics, PR and the media do not dubiously go together in the UK either.

        I’m sorry to hear this is getting wearisome for you but your callous disregard for someone’s professional reputation in your fair missions to discredit the GDN and Bahrain’s regime, and uncover the truth about Al Khawaja, is unethical and unnecessary in my opinion. It says far more about you than it does about Alicia and the fact that your wife tried to engage me as well just makes me question your motives and methods. Unless she genuinely is concerned (and this post would suggest she isn’t) then I will apologise.

    • Ah, “defamation”, yawn! How many times have people in Bahrain tried to threaten me with that! Bring it on, that’s all I can say.

      As for her being “right”, my point is that if one reads carefully between the lines of her trashy piece one can find strong evidence that Al Khawaja is being force fed.

      One might as well argue that a perjurer is “right” when under cross-examination he inadvertently lets the truth slip!

      • I’m not actually threatening you with defamation. Just pointing out the questionable aspects of this article as you brought up media law. Anyway, yes, it would be interesting to see who the source is and why they were able to breach patient confidentiality without retribution so far…

  7. I spoke to Alicia earlier on Twitter to try and fathom out why she wrote this article. I advised that if she was an ethical journalist she should resign from the GDN immediately and distance herself from what is obviously a government propaganda sheet. She told me where to go.

    Still shocked at A: the fact she wrote this article in the first place and B: that she had been so dismissing of my concerns when I contacted her on Twitter, I then asked yourself what was going on. Was she being forced to write such articles?

    Please can we focus on what the real issue is here. A man is dying/already dead. Its very likely he is being tortured right now if he is still alive. His wife is desperate to find out if he is OK while the government play nasty mind games with her. Is he really alive and in high spirits? Where is his statement? Did Alicia actually see him herself. I would be very wary putting my name to anything like that, I was surprised she did so. By doing so, she should know she is playing a dangerous game. No end of service gratuity is worth that. She is not their slave. She can refuse to write anything is uncomfortable with.

    Mike has now removed some of the more ‘personal’ points that you object to as it is seeming to distract from the main issue which is Abdulhadi Al Khawaja.

    • But that was my point in the first place. The unnecessary personal comments were detracting from the point of it being about Al Khawaja himself.

      I’m not denying that the fact that it was in the paper before the family were even told about it is not dubious nor the fact that he is being force fed. You know for a fact I am behind the Al Khawajas. Say what you want about the GDN for all I care. I’m going to stop writing publicly about this now anyway. I’ll talk to you in private.

      One more thing – if your tweet was in reference to my pointing out that you could be liable for libel then please delete it because saying, as you did:

      “We’ve been threatened with libel by a GDN journalist because we dared criticise their ethics. Says it all really.”

      would be completely untrue.

  8. Katy, saying ‘could be’ is still a threat. If someone said to be ‘you could be smacked in the face, if you don’t shut up’ I would feel threatened, wouldn’t you?

    I have deleted the tweet now but lets just say that if anyone threatens us in any way we will be straight onto twitter again.

    I will say again I’m am shocked that Alicia put her name to the article. I tried to talk to you both earlier in the day to get to the bottom of it all.

  9. Err Miranda I was not threatening you, just pointing out the legal flaws in Mike’s article because he was attempting to educate Alicia on the law. The article is not about me. I am not Alicia nor am I a GDN journalist so how did a GDN journalist threaten you?

    Also I have no idea why you tried to talk to me about it anyway. I’ve seen and spoken to Alicia once in the past 8 months or so.

    Just get your facts straight before you start saying things in public that are completely twisted and again libellous.

  10. The journalist chose to write this piece – she says it came from a single reliable source (one of his attending physicians). Putting to one side that she has chosen to publicly narrow down dramatically the list of possible sources, making their identification much easier for officials, what has not been cleared up is the question of whether she or the attending physician had patient consent to disclose private medical details to the public concerning condition & specific course of treatment.

    That IS an ethical question – it remains unanswered.

  11. Pingback: Khalifa and Murdoch: the fall of the regime of embittered, greedy old men « Dr Mike Diboll

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