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April 11, 2011

Daughter of Prominent Bahraini Activist Challenges Obama

by Cecily Hilleary

Zainab Alkhawaja, the daughter of a prominent Bahraini human rights activist, has written a letter to U.S. President Barack Obama calling upon him to stand up for freedom and speak up on behalf of her father, Abdulhadi Alkhawaja. He, along with other relatives, was arrested Saturday by security forces.

Listen to Cecily Hilleary’s conversation with Zainab Alkhawaja:

Zainab, who has been sharing her story on her blog and via Twitter, where she is known as “AngryArabiya,” has also started a hunger strike to draw attention to her cause.

Contacted by phone, Zainab read for us some passages from her letter to Obama.

“Mr. President,… when you were sworn in as President of the United States, I had high hopes.  I thought, ‘Here is a person who would never have become president if it were not for the African-American fight for civil liberties. He will understand our fight for freedom.’

What was it you meant, Mr. President? YES WE CAN…support dictators? YES WE CAN…help oppress pro-democracy protesters? YES WE CAN…turn a blind eye to a people suffering?”

Zinaib also recounted for us in her own words the events surrounding the arrest of her father and other relatives Saturday.

“I have a one-year-old daughter. When I heard that they were going to come for my father, I took her out and left her with some friends. Just in case something would happen, I didn’t want her to be part of this, I didn’t want her to get scared.

At about 2 a.m., they did arrive. The first thing that we heard, knowing that they had arrived, was the banging with a sledgehammer on the building door. They were breaking it. Then we heard them running up to the apartment, and in about 30 seconds, they broke the door to the apartment as well.

Five minutes before they had arrived, my father was telling all of us to be calm and to be patient, and if they do come, he did not want to see anyone crying or shouting. He said he would go with them voluntarily, and he said, “Let’s keep our dignity and respect.”  And just as he was going to speak with them, and I expected he was going to say, “Calm down, I will come with you, please don’t hurt my family,” just as he opened his mouth to speak, the man started saying, “Down on the ground” in very broken Arabic - he was not an Arab - and then he held my father from his neck, from his throat. And he started pulling him away. He pulled him on the stairs, he was dragging him on the stairs while other security forces were hitting him and kicking him and punching him.

They were all wearing black uniforms and they were all masked and they were all armed. And they were beating him. And I heard him gasping for air and saying, “I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe.”

And that’s when I decided that was enough. I wasn’t just going to stand and watch this happen. I ran down the stairs and I was telling them, “Please don’t hurt him, don’t beat him, he’s willing to go with you voluntarily, why are you hitting him?”

One of them started saying, “Beat her up too and arrest her, we’ll take her as well.”

But instead of that, one of the masked men, he grabbed me from my shirt and he started dragging me up the stairs… I saw my father fallen on the stairs as they were dragging him, but he wasn’t moving at all.

And then I saw them take my husband and my two brothers-in-law. They were taking them away like they were two prisoners of war, with their heads forced down. And I saw drops of blood on the stairs. And I knew that my father had been really hurt. Even though my father was unconscious, they were still beating him and kicking him and cursing him and saying that they were going to kill him.

We have no idea where they are. We haven’t even gotten a phone call from them saying that they’re okay.  

And that’s why the last thing that I could think of doing is to just go on hunger strike. I don’t like the feeling of being helpless, of sitting here wondering how they are torturing my father, my husband, my brother-in-law and my uncle. This is my way of trying to do something, of trying to help them, of trying to get the world to realize what’s happening here and what’s happening to my people, what’s happening to my family.”

After sharing her story, Zinaib ended with another passage to her letter to President Obama.

“I ask of you to look into your beautiful daughters' eyes tonight and think to yourself what you are personally willing to sacrifice in order to make sure they can sleep safe at night, that they can grow up with hope rather than fear and heartache, that they can have their father and grandfather's embrace to run to when they are hurt or in need of support. Last night my one-year-old daughter went knocking on our bedroom door calling for her father, the first word she ever learnt. It tore my heart to pieces. How do you explain to a one-year-old that her father is imprisoned? I need to look into my daughter's eyes tomorrow, next week, in the years to come, and tell her I did all that I could to protect her family and future.

For my daughter's sake, for her future, for my father's life, for the life of my husband, to unite my family again, I will begin my hunger strike,"
writes Zinaib.

Bahraini officials have rejected claims of a targeted campaign against opposition activists, insisting authorities are only doing what was necessary to ensure law and order.

Critics suspect many countries have been reluctant to take a firm stance on Bahrain because of the emirate’s strategic importance as a Western ally in the oil-producing Persian Gulf region. Bahrain is also home to the U.S. Navy’s 5th Fleet.

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