November Offers Ideal Time for Bahrain to Release Jailed Activists
By Brian Dooley
Big month ahead for Bahrain: November will see elections, scrutiny of the country’s human rights record under the United Nations Universal Periodic Review, and a visit by Pope Francis.
The tiny kingdom rarely gets the international attention it will next month, at least not since its government violently suppressed a large-scale pro-democracy uprising in 2011.
Now it will be back in the spotlight for a few short weeks, and it should make the most of it. There is some opportunity here for the government to exploit its moment in the limelight and to make grand, imaginative gestures, including the release of prominent human rights activists.
A ruling family controls the government. Elections are a performative sham, with opposition leaders in prison. The parliament has no power anyway, so the royals can do what they want. All next month’s attention means it’s a great time for the king and his son the crown prince (who’s also the country’s unelected “prime minister” and a purported reformer ) to let people out of prison and revel in the accompanying international approval and positive publicity.
They could start with Abdulhadi Al Khawaja, one of the region’s leading peaceful activists. He’s a dual citizen of Denmark and Bahrain, and like many others he was tortured and jailed for his part in the 2011 protests. He was sentenced to life in prison after an unfair trial. Releasing him would generate public commendations from Denmark, the European Union, and other governments.
I spoke to Al Khawaja on the phone just before he was arrested in April 2011, and the following month I went to the courtroom in Bahrain where he was being tried to see him but was thrown out before the trial started. Since then, Human Rights First has been campaigning for his release, raising his case in the US Congress and parliaments across the world. We’ve undertaken protests and prayer vigils outside Bahraini embassies, and been deported from Bahrain for trying to visit him in prison.
But like many others campaigning for him, we haven’t given up and we won’t go away until he’s released.
Al Khawaja’s daughter Maryam, herself a human right activist who was jailed in Bahrain, says the coming weeks are “the litmus test” for the crown prince’s “PR campaign as a reformist” which can be used “as a platform for taking steps in the right direction. That would be in the form of releasing prisoners of conscience like my father, and allowing the population access to basic rights and freedoms.”
The crown prince and the Bahraini government could save themselves years of more grief and negative attention from the likes of us by releasing Al Khawaja next month, along with other prominent peaceful activists, including Naji Fateel, Abduljalil Al Singace, Hassan Mushaima and others.
These activists should never have been arrested, tortured, or jailed. It’s too late to make right all the wrongs that have been done to them, but releasing them from prison next month would be the right, and smart, thing to do.