04.10.12

Bahrain Human-Rights Activist Abdulhadi al-Khawaja Dying in Prison

The activist’s efforts to help bring democracy to authoritarian Bahrain landed him in prison, where he launched a hunger strike. Now he is in critical condition, facing the risk of a coma and cardiac arrest that could end his life.

Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, 50, a Bahraini human-rights activist who has been on a hunger strike for eight weeks, is in a prison hospital in critical condition, and family members say he may slip into a coma at any time and is at risk of cardiac arrest. 

Al-Khawaja’s most recent hunger strike—his fourth in eight months—began on Feb. 8, 2012, in protest of the life sentence he received in June 2011. Two months prior, along with seven other activists, he was arrested on charges of inciting hatred against the regime and trying to overthrow the island nation’s government.

His arrest came at the height of the Bahraini Pearl Revolution early last year. On Feb. 14, 2011, thousands congregated at the Pearl Roundabout in the capital city Manama’s financial district to demand a national dialogue between the largely Shia citizenry and the ruling Sunni al-Khalifa family. Security forces wielding clubs, shotguns, and tear gas soon displaced the peaceful protesters, but it did not deter many from continuing their demonstrations throughout the nation.

On June 29, 2011, the country’s ruler, Sheik Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa, established the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI) to investigate the events surrounding the uprising. The BICI released its report on Nov. 23 and confirmed that thousands had been detained and many had been tortured, some to death, and that the Bahraini government had used "excessive force" to crush protests.

Sheik Hamad expressed dismay about the commission’s findings and promised change—though opposition leaders and human-rights activists remained suspicious of the promise and of the government's commitment to reform. Days after the findings were released, Bahraini forces in A'ali, a town just outside Manama, fired bullets and tear gas at civilians during a funeral ceremony for a protester who had been killed by security forces, according to Al Jazeera. In a statement issued through the state-run Bahrain News Agency, the Bahraini Ministry of Human Rights and Social Development responded to criticism from organizations such as Human Rights Watch by claiming that the critics were ignoring “the positive developments in the country and the continuation of the reform process.”

Al-Khawaja’s relationship with the Bahraini government has always been turbulent. His work as a prominent human-rights defender resulted in his and his family’s exile to Denmark in the 1980s. After 12 years there, they were allowed to return, in 1991, to Bahrain, where he and his daughters Maryam, 24, and Zainab, 28, became deeply involved in human-rights advocacy. When al-Khawaja was imprisoned last June, the daughters held peaceful but unsuccessful protests demanding his release, as well as amnesty for other political prisoners. Since al-Khawaja’s arrest, his wife was fired from her job, his daughter Zainab was arrested five times, and his sons-in-law were arrested and tortured, though later released.

Maryam, currently the head of foreign relations at the Bahrain Center of Human Rights, has spoken out about the country’s problems in conversations with international media outlets and at various events. After she gave a speech at the 2011 Oslo Freedom Forum, Bahrain’s public-relations agency, the Washington, D.C.–based Qorvis—which also boasts Saudi Arabia and Intel as clients—orchestrated a smear campaign via Twitter and blog comments, along with emails to organizers of the event.

“We support my father and understand the message he is trying to send,” says Maryam. “He wants to bring international attention to the ongoing daily human rights violations in Bahrain and to show that despite all promises, government is not reforming or changing.”

In Bahrain, meanwhile, protests are still ongoing, and despite the promise of change, allegations of government violence are heard almost every day.

Zainab, who has a well-known blog and a Twitter account (@AngryArabiya), like her father has felt the brunt of state repression. On Dec.15, 2011, she and fellow activist Masooma Al-Sayyid were arrested at a peaceful protest. Video clips of Zainab being dragged and assaulted by a policewoman rapidly circulated and drew condemnation from international human-rights organizations. She was released on bail five days later but still faces charges of illegal gathering, assaulting a female officer, and, in a familiar phrase, “inciting hatred” against the regime. Earlier this week, video of her crying out for her father outside the prison hospital where he lay dying was posted online. According to the al-Khawaja family lawyer, Mohamed al-Jishi, Zainab was arrested again after refusing to leave. She was released on April 7 after spending two days in jail.

The international outcry over al-Khawaja’s detention has increased as his physical condition has deteriorated. Groups such as Amnesty International have been pressing the Bahraini regime for al-Khawaja’s immediate release. Twitter has been flooded with pleas to Western nations to pressure the government, and for Formula 1 to cancel the Bahrain Grand Prix on April 22. Last week, factions related to the Occupy Wall Street movement took part in a protest outside the Bahraini consulate in New York.

In Bahrain, meanwhile, protests are still ongoing, and despite the promise of change, allegations of government violence are heard almost every day.

On April 7, Zainab posted on her Twitter account her mother’s latest conversation with her enfeebled father: “my mum said goodbye ‘I hope we see u soon, and if not.. dont worry about us, we will meet you in the hereafter’ #Bahrain” and “before hanging up my father said ‘thats exactly what I wanted to hear.’”