Stories from Bahrain’s Crackdown: Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja, Former President & Co-Founder, Bahrain Centre for Human Rights
Widespread public protests calling for democratic reform in Bahrain began in February 2011. By mid-March 2011, the Bahrain government had begun a violent crackdown on the protestors and those it imagined had been its leaders. Journalists, human rights activists and medics were arrested in the following weeks. Many still remain in jail today, convicted on the basis of confessions forced under torture.
In the early days of the protests in 2011, Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja led peaceful demonstrations and criticized the regime for its crackdown, demanding that charges of torture and corruption be brought against members of the Bahraini royal family. On April 9, 2011, about 15 masked men broke into Al-Khawaja’s daughter’s house, attacked him until he lost consciousness, dragged him down the stairs, and detained him along with two of his sons-in-law.
Al-Khawaja’s illustrious history of activism began with protests when he was still a student in London. After being denied a passport renewal and repeated harassment after returning to Bahrain, Al-Khawaja was granted political asylum in Denmark, where he established the Bahrain Human Rights Organization (BHRO). Upon being given a general amnesty in 2001, he returned to Bahrain with his family and founded the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights (BCHR). In both September 2004 and May 2007, he was detained, assaulted and convicted in unfair trials.
Until February 2011, Al-Khawaja was the Middle East and North Africa Protection Coordinator with Front Line Defenders and a member of the International Advisory Network in the Business and Human Rights Resource Center chaired by Mary Robinson, former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. He has also worked with numerous international human rights organizations including Amnesty International.
On May 8, 2011, following several weeks of detention, Al-Khawaja was put on trial before the National Safety Court, a military tribunal, with 20 other Bahrainis. Despite a lack of evidence, he was convicted of financing and participating in terrorism to overthrow the government, as well as spying for a foreign country. He was sentenced to life imprisonment.
According to his testimony before the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI)—a panel of human rights experts asked by King Hamad bin Issa Al Khalifa to look into the unrest, and headed by Professor Cherif Bassiouni—Al-Khawaja endured prolonged torture while in detention. He suffered at least four fractures to his face and was subject to sexual assault.
Following his conviction, Al-Khawaji continued his activism from prison. From February to May 2012, he partook in a 110 day-long hunger strike to protest ongoing detentions. He lost 22 pounds, his health deteriorated greatly, and he was at risk of death. Although Denmark requested that Al-Khawaja, a Danish citizen, be released into their custody on humanitarian grounds for medical treatment, the Supreme Judicial Council of Bahrain rejected the request declaring that “specific conditions” required by Bahraini law had not been met, without saying what those conditions were, and that the law prevented the transfer of “accused and convicted persons to foreign countries.”
The High Court of Appeal upheld his convictions on September 4, 2012, in what amounted to a re-trial that relied on the same evidence the military court had considered. A retrial for Al-Khawaja was eventually granted with the Court of Cassation, Bahrain’s highest court, on January 7, 2013. Al-Khawaja’s life sentence was confirmed, as were the sentences—ranging from five years to life—of twelve other prominent political dissidents. The group has come to be known as the “Bahrain 13.”
Al-Khawaja recently celebrated his third consecutive birthday in prison. He resolutely advocates for peaceful resistance despite the Bahraini government’s continued crackdown over the last three years, including its jailing of political dissidents. In May 2011, President Obama stated that the Bahrain government “can’t have a real dialogue when parts of the peaceful opposition are in jail.” If Bahrain is serious about reform it needs to begin genuine negotiations with those currently in jail.