Fears Of Organ Failure For Hunger Strike Prisoner

In Bahrain, demonstrators are demanding the release of imprisoned activist Abdulhadi al-Khawaja. He has been on hunger strike for more than two months and his family now fears for his health. Guest host Viviana Hurtado speaks with his daughter, Zainab al-Khawaja and Middle East expert, Joshua Landis.

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VIVIANA HURTADO, HOST:

This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Viviana Hurtado. Michel Martin is away visiting member station WRVO in Oswego, New York.

Coming up, the economy is officially in recovery, but many Americans' personal finances have not recovered. In our Money Coach conversation, we get advice for rebuilding your savings in a tough economy.

But first, we turn to the Mideast and international efforts to stop the Syrian authorities from attacking and killing anti-government protesters. The United Nations estimates thousands of Syrians have lost their lives during a year of uprising.

International envoy Kofi Annan expressed confidence that Syria would honor a ceasefire before a Thursday deadline, but our next guest doesn't share that optimism. He wrote that Syrian ceasefire efforts were unlikely to work. Joshua Landis is the director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma.

Welcome to the program.

JOSHUA LANDIS: It's a pleasure to be here.

HURTADO: Joshua, you wrote earlier this week that the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad wouldn't honor a Tuesday pull-out deadline and you were spot on. Explain your thoughts about this new Thursday deadline.

LANDIS: Well, the regime is in a life and death struggle with this revolution and both sides believe they can win and that they have to keep on pressing. And the government is going into rebel-held territory and destroying a lot of towns and trying to round up people, arrest them and kill them. And that's the sad situation and why there's such a big humanitarian crisis presently in Syria and why it's so difficult to stop.

HURTADO: And it's not just confined to Syria. In fact, this week the fighting spilled over into Turkey. Tell us what happened and what's been the response from Turkey. Certainly a lot of tension.

LANDIS: Well, there's about twenty-four or five thousand Syrian refugees in Turkey. The border region - there's a 500 mile border with Syria, and the region just underneath the border between Turkey and Syria has been a dominant rebel-held area. It's a poor agricultural region and the regime is trying to quell revolt in these towns next to the Turkish border.

And so the Syrian government troops seem to have shot at refugees over the border and killed some Turkish service workers, as well as Syrian refugees, and it's caused an outrage in Turkey. The Turkish prime minister is headed to Saudi Arabia. They're trying to put their heads together and see what they can do to ratchet up pressure on Syria to obey this ceasefire.

The trouble is that if the Syrian government obeys the ceasefire and withdraws from Syria's cities, rebel troops will take over cities, as they have in the past. And so this is broad grassroots uprising, and it is the challenge that the Syrian government is unlikely to win in the long run. It may win for some time. The opposition is very disorganized, scattered, so the balance of power is still in the favor of the Syrian military and the government, but that is unlikely to be the case for a lot longer.

HURTADO: Joshua, you just mentioned that the opposition is fragmented and that's been cited as one of the reasons why other countries, certainly the U.S., has been reluctant to intervene, as well as other allies. Can you talk about other reasons that would explain this reluctance?

LANDIS: Well, the trouble with Syria is that it doesn't have a strong sense of national political community, and we've seen that in Iraq. We've seen that in Afghanistan. America has thought that they could just march in, get rid of a bad regime, replace it with a good regime. In none of these cases has that happened.

What's happened is, once you destroy the government, the states crumble and you get emulous factions that begin to fight amongst themselves, and that's the fear that that will happen in Syria as well. So no country really wants to get involved. They believe that this could be their Vietnam.

If Turkey would invade, overthrow the government, they could end up with a worse humanitarian crisis on their hands, and that's why they're hanging back and that's why the Syrian opposition is facing such a difficult uphill battle, because in the recent examples of governments that have been brought down in the Middle East, whether it's Libya, Iraq or Afghanistan, they've been brought down by American and European air power. They have not been brought down by insurgencies.

So Syria - if America does not intervene with its airplanes - which I don't think it will - this means that all the heavy lifting is left up into the hands of the Syrian opposition movement, and there are about 50 militias in Syria today and nobody knows which one to arm, and that's the problem.

HURTADO: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I've been speaking with Professor Joshua Landis from the University of Oklahoma about the ongoing conflict in Syria. Professor Landis, we're going to ask you to stay with us, but now we're going to turn to another country in the region, Bahrain.

Like in Syria, there's been a strong push for over a year now for new leadership. One of the people leading the push for that change is Abdulhadi al-Khawaja. He was the president of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, but the government says he was plotting a coup. He's now in jail there and he's been on hunger strike for about two months now.

But Abdulhadi isn't the only political activist in the family. His daughter, Zainab, has been in and out of jail as well for her opposition to the government. She's also a prolific tweeter, and she joins us from Bahrain.

Thanks for being here.

ZAINAB AL-KHAWAJA: Thanks for having me.

HURTADO: Zainab, first and foremost, how was your dad the last time you saw him or spoke with him on the phone?

AL-KHAWAJA: We haven't seen my father for more than a week now and the last time we saw him, he was very weak. Today is the 63rd day of his hunger strike and there is a lot of fear that he might have organ failure or that, if he sleeps, he might go into a coma and not wake up.

HURTADO: The government said that he was being fed fluids intravenously. Is that true?

AL-KHAWAJA: We don't have a lot of information because we have not been allowed to see my father. When I attempted to see my father on two occasions, I got arrested and interrogated with(ph) . My father, the last time we spoke to him, said that he agreed to drink some water if they let him talk to us and let us know that he is OK.

HURTADO: The government says your dad was trying to overthrow the government. Is that true?

AL-KHAWAJA: I don't recall him calling for an overthrow of the government as much as calling for the rights of the people in choosing their government, which is calling for democracy.

HURTADO: And your family, Zainab, has been particularly involved in this movement. You described on Twitter how you watched your father get dragged away by the police and you've been in jail yourself. How dangerous is it for you to be speaking with us right now? And do you think - do you fear that there could be repercussions, that your dad could be punished?

AL-KHAWAJA: I mean we have been punished for a very long time now. My father is one example and the price that he had to pay for that is the way that he was arrested. They broke his jaw in four different places. My father now has more than 20 metal plates and screws holding his jaw together. He was tortured for more than two months. He was kept in solitary confinement, and now, as he lies dying from a hunger strike, it does not seem that the government in Bahrain cares.

HURTADO: What would you like the international community to do?

AL-KHAWAJA: I mean, we have been - we have seen, in Bahrain, that the Bahraini regime does not care about the rights and the lives of Bahrainis, but they do care about international pressure. So we're hoping, especially in countries that say they believe in human rights and in democracy, for them to pressure the dictatorship in Bahrain to stop abusing human rights, to stop oppressing the people in Bahrain.

And in my father's situation - to release him, even if it is to the Danish authorities, for treatment.

HURTADO: Joshua Landis, let's turn back to you. Zainab was just speaking about pressure from the international community. You said the U.S. has been reluctant, though, to act on Syria. What's the thought on Bahrain?

LANDIS: Well, the situations are very much alike in some ways and very different in others. The trouble is that in the Gulf, America is allied with Saudi Arabia, a Sunni - the major Sunni power, and the Bahraini monarchy.

In Syria, of course, America doesn't like the Syrian government. It's Shiite. It's allied with Iran, America's biggest enemy today, and with Hezbollah and other Shiite factions. So America would like to see the Syrian government overturned and is putting a lot of pressure and sanctions on Syria.

But not so in Bahrain. America, as we've just heard, has talked about democracy in Bahrain, but has a lot of interest in preserving the monarchy, and that presents a real, you know, contradictory position, a difficult position for the United States in pressuring the Bahraini monarchy.

HURTADO: Joshua Landis is the director of Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma. He joined us from his home in Norman, Oklahoma. And earlier, you heard from Zainab al-Khawaja. She's a pro-democracy activist in Bahrain and joined us from there by phone.

Thanks to you both.

AL-KHAWAJA: Thank you.

LANDIS: Thank you.

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