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Despite Arrests and Torture, Bahrain's Khawaja Family Fights On

Abdulhadi al-Khawaja and his daughters Zainab al-Khawaja and Maryam al-Khawaja epitomize the cross-familial activism that has emerged during the Arab Spring.

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Freedom Now, a US-based NGO that provides pro-bono international legal counsel to prisoners of conscience, has been representing Abdulhadi. According to the organization, the activist's rights to a fair trial under international legal principles were ignored by the National Safety Court of Bahrain.

The manner in which Abdulhadi's trial and detention were conducted raise a number of concerns. He was held incommunicado for weeks, was denied a lawyer during his initial detention period, was silenced when attempting to speak in court, and was severely tortured in prison, before and after the trial. Along with twenty other activists, he was tried by a military tribunal under martial law, which the government had invoked during a three-month period of emergency rule to curb protests. Despite lack of evidence, he was convicted of “organizing and managing a terrorist organization” and attempting “to overthrow the Government by force and in liaison with a terrorist organization working for a foreign country.”

The Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI), established by King Hamad in response to international criticism of the crackdown against protests, concluded that the trial did not comply with international standards of due process, nor even Bahrain's own criminal code. The commission recommended that the trials be transferred to civilian courts. The BICI also detailed the torture and sexual violence endured by al-Khawaja during his first two months of detention:

At Al Qurain Prison, the detainee spent two months in solitary confinement in a small cell measuring approximately two and a half meters by two meters. He did not know where he was or what day it was. There was no fresh air. He was hooded whenever he went to the toilet. Eight days after his surgery, regular beatings started at night. Masked guards cursed him and hit him in his head and hands, causing swelling. They forced a stick into his anus. He was also beaten on the soles of his feet (falaka) and on his toes.

This documentation was published as part of the BICI findings in November 2011 and fully accepted by the Bahraini government. Yet no action has been taken by the authorities in addressing al-Khawaja's case.

But the unfair trials and detention have not gone completely unnoticed. The Danish ambassador to Bahrain, Christian Kønigsfeldt, has been tasked with closely following Abdulhadi's case due to the activist's Danish citizenship. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Copenhagen has been understandably concerned that one of their own citizens is being subjected to torture and unlawful detention, as confirmed through their own personal visits to the prison. Al-Khawaja himself sent a handwritten letter to the Danish government on 8 February 2012. The activist, who received training at the Danish Center for Human Rights, requested that his surrogate country undertake further action based on the illegality of his detention and the numerous violations committed against him and other political prisoners:

I would suggest that the Danish authorities kindly put more effort, in coordination with the other EU-State members, to take whatever possible action at the regional level as embassies, in Brussels institutions and at the UN in Geneva, to address my case and the cases of other detained activists, calling for the release, repatriation, and protection for human rights defenders in Bahrain.

In a statement, the Danish Foreign Ministry emphasized that they have been using every possible diplomatic channel to secure the release of the activist and overturn his life sentence. “The Danish Foreign Minister, Villy Søvndal, urged for either al-Khawaja’s immediate release or that his case be reviewed in the civilian court system, ensuring a fair trial. As a matter of fact, a consular visit to al-Khawaja in Al Jaw Prison took place as recently as Feb 27,” Kønigsfeldt verified.

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