Hunger strikes are a new-old phenomenon resorted to by those who lack any other means to claim their rights, express their opinion or defend themselves. They are often the last resort in the struggle for freedom.
The phenomenon is growing in prisons wherein detainees face injustice and are unable in other ways to influence the conditions under which they are being held. These may include hygiene, health care, food or even the number of prisoners in each cell. They may also be a protest against the treatment meted out by prison officials or the confiscation of personal property.
Those who go on hunger strike face the potential for serious physical and psychological damage. Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi is famous for using his hunger strike for political purposes. He demanded civil and human rights, and the independence of his country from British occupation. Gandhi presented his strike as a form of nonviolent resistance to the occupation, which would embarrass the British authorities in the eyes of the public. Other Indians joined Gandhi in his hunger strikes, and some died as a result.
More recently, Indian civil rights and political activist Irom Chanu Sharmila started her hunger strike on 2 November 2000 in protest against military laws that allow India's armed forces to arrest any suspect in areas experiencing violence and unrest. She was force fed by the authorities before the protest ended on 9 August 2016.
The Irish republican movement has a modern legacy of hunger strikes going back more than a century in protest at British policies which prevented first the establishment of the Republic of Ireland, and then the reunification of Ireland, as well as government policies in the Westminster-established Northern Ireland. A number of hunger strikers have died in prison over the decades.
In 1981, a group of Irish republican prisoners went on hunger strike in the Maze Prison outside Belfast. The British Prime Minister at the time was Margaret Thatcher. One of the strikers, Bobby Sands, was elected as a Member of Parliament for Fermanagh and South Tyrone, which attracted global media attention. The strike was ended on 3 October 1981 after ten prisoners had died of hunger, including Sands, whose funeral was attended by 100,000 people. Three days later, the remaining prisoners were granted partial concessions including the right to wear their own clothes at all times. Other demands were met later, albeit without official government acknowledgement.
The first Palestinian hunger strike took place in Nablus Prison in early 1968, less than a year after the start of the Israeli occupation of the West Bank. Prisoners went on a three-day hunger strike to protest against the beatings and humiliation to which they were subjected by Israeli soldiers, and to demand an improvement in their living conditions.
On 11 November 1970, Abd Al-Qadir Abu Al-Fahm was the first Palestinian prisoner to die on hunger strike, in Ashkelon Prison. He was thus the first martyr of this method of civil resistance against the occupation. Ten years later, Ali Al-Jaafari died during the Nafha Prison hunger strike. Mahmoud Fritikh died in the Junaid Prison strike in 1984, and Hussein Nimr Obeidat died on 14 October 1992, in another hunger strike at Ashkelon Prison.
The most well-known recent hunger strikers have been Khader Adnan, Muhammad Al-Qiq, Ayman Atbeish and Samer Al-Issawi. One strike in 2013 lasted 265 days. In 2019, Maher Al-Akhras, 49, went on a hunger strike for 103 days in protest at his arrest. The occupation authorities released him after four months.
Despite international efforts to improve them, prisons across the Middle East do not comply with international standards. The UN has mechanisms to prevent abuses behind bars, but it lacks the ability to monitor prison conditions and the treatment of detainees, especially political prisoners.
A prominent political prisoner has so far spent more than 100 days on a hunger strike in Bahrain. Academic Dr Abduljalil Al-Singace, 60, has been on hunger strike since July. His demands are simple, including the return of a book he spent four years writing about Bahraini dialects and their historical development. The book has historical and cultural value and is not concerned with politics and the specific conditions under which Al-Singace was imprisoned. He has spent ten and a half years in prison for his role in the February 14 Revolution, which was launched in 2011 during the Arab Spring. The confiscation of his book by the authorities was a severe blow to him. The academic has been disabled since birth and is unable to walk without crutches. He was imprisoned when the revolution broke out because of his opposition to the government, writing, blogs and lectures.
There are now international calls for his release, not least because Al-Singace is a prisoner of conscience and has not committed a crime punishable by law. Moreover, he has already spent over 10 years in prison after being sentenced to life by a military court. His disability also means that he suffers from related heart disease, blood pressure and joint pain, and his health has deteriorated since the start of his hunger strike. He is being held in a health facility, completely isolated from the world and other political prisoners.
The European Parliament and several national parliaments in Europe have called for his release, as have human rights groups and professional organisations. The University of Manchester, where he completed his doctoral studies, has contacted the British government in this regard. However, the Bahraini authorities are unmoved. Dr Al-Singace and other opposition icons who have been detained for over ten years remain behind bars for no other reason than calling for freedom and basic civil and human rights.
This article first appeared in Arabic in Al-Quds Al-Arabi on 24 October 2021
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.