Despite Arrests and Torture, Bahrain's Khawaja Family Fights On
This article originally appeared in Jadaliyya, an independent ezine produced by the Arab Studies Institute.
An important aspect of many of the popular movements of the Arab Spring has been the emergence of different generations of activists from the same families. Abdulhadi al-Khawaja and his daughters Zainab al-Khawaja and Maryam al-Khawaja epitomize such cross-familial activism. Abdulhadi is among the most renowned human rights activists in Bahrain. A co-founder of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights (BCHR), a regional representative for Ireland-based Frontline Defenders, a consultant for Amnesty International, and a member of The Arab Group for Monitoring Media Performance, al-Khawaja has dedicated his life to achieving political freedom and human rights for all in Bahrain.
After being forced to seek political asylum in Denmark for twelve years, following constant persecution by Bahraini authorities for his activism, the al-Khawajas moved back to Bahrain in 2001, based on promises of “democratic reforms” that would transform the hereditary emirate into a constitutional monarchy. In the following year, the self-proclaimed King Hamad promised greater political freedom and laws that would allow the formation of independent human rights groups. Abdulhadi co-founded the first independent human rights organization in Bahrain, but soon after, the repeated arrests and beatings of the activist resumed. He was detained in 2004, 2005, 2007, and 2009 on separate but similar charges, all related to “disturbing the peace” through his activism and mobilization efforts. He was arrested one last time in April 2011 for leading pro-democracy protests and sentenced to life in prison, along with eight other human rights defenders.
As Bahrain conducted one of the largest demonstrations of the Arab Spring on 9 March 2012, with hundreds of thousands of protesters converging in Manama, Abdulhadi continued a silent protest of his own from within the confines of his prison. He has been carrying on a hunger strike for thirty-nine days in defiance of his unlawful detention. He alleges that he was subjected to torture and sexual abuse during his imprisonment. Abdulhadi's lawyer Mohamed al-Jishi described the activist as “weak, pale, with significant weight loss, and hardly able to walk” after his latest visit to the prison. Through his lawyer, al-Khawaja issued this statement:
My hunger strike is a part of my human rights defense inside jail. It's very important to focus on all detainees as I'm just a part of them. I will continue with my hunger strike till I reach my demands despite the consequences. I'm aware that freedom is expensive and we must sacrifice to gain it.
“I have always tried to cover Bahrain by speaking about everyone, not just my family and my father,” explains al-Khawaja’s older daughter Zainab, speaking immediately after being released from prison herself, “but my father has given his life to the cause of the people and the cause of freedom. His case is one of the obvious cases of this regime's brutality against the people of Bahrain.” Zainab had been arrested on 12 February2012, two days before the anniversary of the protests, as she approached the Pearl Roundabout in Manama. Her voice was weary from a visit to the Sulamaniya hospital, where a sixteen-year-old boy hit directly by a tear gas canister (losing one eye) was being treated. Zainab has been documenting such human rights violations on a daily basis for the past year.
On the morning of Abdulhadi's arrest, fifteen masked men forcefully entered Zainab's apartment, breaking down the main door with a sledgehammer. Without an arrest warrant and without producing identification, the men beat Abdulhadi to the point of unconsciousness, struck Zainab when she tried to intervene, and dragged away her father. For the next several weeks, Abdulhadi's family had no details of his whereabouts. “They locked the women in the house away and also arrested my husband and brothers-in-law. They are still in prison on charges of inciting hatred against the regime,” said Zainab.
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.
Another group closely following Abdulhadi's case is the Ireland-based group Frontline Defenders, which has launched a campaign calling for the activist's release. Adam Shapiro, head of campaigns for the organization, explained that in addition to al-Khawaja's physical condition being documented by forensic experts at the BICI, numerous other witnesses have since verified his ailing condition. “When he was first detained, there were numerous witnesses to the beating that he suffered. His family and other observers, including Front Line Defenders observers and officials from various embassies, did see the visible wounds to his face as a result of the beating at the time of his arrest,” explained Shapiro. These visits were followed by al-Khawaja's four-hour surgery in a military hospital to treat severe injuries to his head caused by repeated beatings.
Human Rights Watch, along with forty-four other international rights groups, issued a joint letter to King Hamad on 5 March 2012, seeking the activist's immediate release.
Meanwhile, twenty-eight-year-old Zainab al-Khawaja has been in Manama, the epicenter of the protests, steadfastly leading marches despite repeated arrests. Famously known by her Twitter name, the “Angry Arabiya,” she has spent a large part of the last year documenting daily details of villages enveloped by toxic gases, protesters subjected to crackdowns by riot police, disappearances of young men associated with the February 14th movement, and petitions to the UN calling for the release of all political prisoners. Zainab's father, husband, brothers-in-law, and uncle remain in prison.
The photos of her being reprimanded by a female police officer, and later handcuffed and dragged away to a police van during a sit-in last December, were a solemn reminder that the fight for reform in Bahrain had never stopped, although there was a glaring dearth in media coverage. She was arrested again, right before the anniversary of protests in February, as part of what she calls a concerted effort to suppress the voices of dissidents.
Despite the BICI Report being heralded for its damning revelations of crimes committed by the military police during the March 2011 crackdown, activists like Zainab claim that the inquiry was part of cosmetic changes meant to impress the international community, but that these changes would not be implemented. “We have had this experience time and again...When King Hamad took over the throne in 2001, that was the idea, that he would be different from his father Isa and would create reforms. Ten years later we are paying the price and we never saw any real changes,” Zainab points out.
But Zainab considers herself fortunate, given her international recognition, which has granted her “decent” treatment in prison. She points to recurring episodes of disappearances, deaths, and torture even after the BICI report, with such episodes increasing in number and intensity in January and February 2012, leading up to the anniversary of protests and continuing thereafter. With virtually no international monitors in the country, such human rights violations continue unabated.
Just as active as the rest of her family is twenty-four-year-old Maryam al-Khawaja, albeit from a distance of thousands of kilometers. Based in Europe, as the head of foreign relations for the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, she has been advocating for the Bahraini protesters' cause through international outlets. Speaking of her father, she says: “Everything I know in the human rights field I've learned from him; he is my father, my teacher, and my inspiration.”
Maryam left Bahrain upon being convinced by her father that it was just as important to spread global awareness regarding human rights violations taking place in the country. When asked whether she would like to return home, Maryam explains: “Given the choice and freedom, of course I would go back to Bahrain, to stand side by side with the people of Bahrain demanding freedom and dignity.”
Since leaving the country in March 2010, she has spoken at universities, appeared on different media outlets, met with government representatives, and presented documentation of human rights violation to the UN. “My job is to basically make sure that the [Bahraini] government isn't able to get away with their ongoing violations and crimes while their twelve PR companies gloss up their image internationally.”
Despite a relatively subdued anniversary “day of rage” on 14 February 2012—due to a timely clampdown on activists, the arrests of leading dissents such as Zainab, and the denial of entry and deportations of human rights monitors and journalists—the latest reports reveal continued marches with anti-government chants. At the end of the 9 March protest, organizers estimated that half of the country (which has a population of 1.2 million) had turned up on the streets that day.
But the same reports also detail excessive use of force by the Bahraini riot police, both in the capital and in villages through out the country. In Sitra, tear gas is being used inside homes, resulting in several asphyxiation cases amongst young children and the elderly. On 9 March, a one-and-a-half-month-old infant and an elderly woman died due to the toxic side effects of tear gas.
The repression of protests, denial of entry to journalists, and lack of international presence—all signs pointing to escalated violence and repression—led to the formation of a group of international observers calledWitness Bahrain in February 2012. Comprising attorneys, humanitarian workers, writers, and community organizers, this US-based organization is one of the few international voices urging the Obama administration to halt armament of the Bahraini government. They have called upon the White House to publicly condemn the ongoing repression in Bahrain.
“We believed that having a known and visible international presence on the ground might help mitigate government violence towards the pro-democracy movement and potentially save lives, as well as help disseminate information as to what is happening on the ground,” elaborates Huwaida Arraf, a member of the organization. She was one of the international observers who was forcibly deported, a day before the protest anniversary.
The organization managed to document excessive use of force against protesters through firsthand accounts and photos over the course of only five days inside the country. This is an excerpt from Arraf's own eye-witness account:
In terms of what we witnessed with our own eyes, the most egregious was the firing of tear gas from weapons (which turns tear gas canisters into high velocity, potentially lethal projectiles) at head level...We also witnessed riot police raid villages and barrage them with tear gas, sound grenades, and also shooting rubber bullets. From what we could tell, this was in reaction to nothing more than villagers gathering to demonstrate, chanting against the monarchy.
The use of tear gas inside homes has been a recurring cause of asphyxiations and even deaths, rendering the term “non-lethal weapon” meaningless. As explained by Huwaida, the riot police were directly shooting tear gas canisters, as late as 11 February, the day she was arrested and later deported. “I can confirm that riot police were firing tear gas at head level, as one projectile flew within inches of my face,” Huwaida describes.
Unlike some of the other Arab Spring hot spots, Bahrain is still being left in the dark, with minimal reportage of clashes. The US and UK governments have been largely silent, not only continuing their diplomatic activity with the al-Khalifa family as usual, but also extending military and political support to the regime in Bahrain. “Given the US and UK interest in Bahrain and in seeing stability return to the island, it would seemingly be in their interests to encourage the government of Bahrain to take concrete, tangible steps to show a willingness to deal with the crimes that were committed by security forces and government officials,” says Shapiro.
Despite the deafening silence in relation to Bahrain, from the same countries currently galvanizing humanitarian support for Syrian protesters, Bahrainis continue to voice their demands. “The protests are the heartbeat of the revolution,” Zainab reiterates. And they have continued on a daily basis for over a year. Allowing the situation in Bahrain to continue unresolved carries a heavy toll. In Huwaida's words: “It will mean more suffering, more families losing loved ones to prison, torture, death, and more trauma that will further divide the country.”
It has also become crucial at this juncture to secure the release of the most well-known human rights activist in the country. Shapiro cautions: “Abdulhadi is someone whose story is known to every person in Bahrain. His death in prison will only serve to raise tensions and polarize things further. As such, a diplomatic intervention is critical at this stage.”
Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, denoted as “Case no. 8” by the BICI report, is expected to be tried again in July 2012 in a civilian court. But the activist has thus far refused to halt his hunger strike, stating that he will only settle for “freedom or death.” Similar to the Palestinian hunger striker Khader Adnan, Abdulhadi's struggle has been received with alarming silence from the US and its mainstream media. Undoubtedly, the US carries significant leverage with the al-Khalifa family and the Saudi royals. Given the White House's explicit endorsement of “human rights and democracy for all” in other contexts, the administration cannot indefinitely evade Abdulhadi's plight and that of thousands of other political prisoners, as well as the hundreds of thousands of Bahraini protesters awaiting justice.