Bahrain: “Release Zainab Al-Khawaja with no further delay”

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On 7 April 2016, Bahraini foreign minister Sheikh Khaled bin Ahmed al-Khalifa told the US State Department during meetings with Secretary of State John Kerry that activist Zainab Al-Khawaja, who was imprisoned on 14 March along with her one-year-old son Abdulhadi, would be freed.

One month on, we are still waiting for her release.

Index on Censorship has repeatedly expressed concerns over the detention and treatment of Al-Khawaja. After being taken into custody, she was transferred to the Isa Town Detention Center, which has been criticised for its poor sanitation and regular outbreaks of Hepatitis C, to serve out her prison term. She was initially denied food for herself and her son.

In October 2015, Bahrain’s appeals court confirmed her conviction for insulting the king of Bahrain by tearing up a photograph of him and reduced her three-year prison sentence to one year. 

Zainab Al-Khawaja is serving prison term based on charges related to her right to freedom of expression and assembly,” said Index’s senior advocacy officer Melody Patry. “Her imprisonment violates international human rights standards and every day she spends in jail brings into question Bahrain’s commitment to democracy and the rule of law.”

“We call on Bahrain to keep the promise made to the US State Department a month ago to release Zainab Al-Khawaja with no further delay,” Patry added.

The US State Department has also reminded Bahrain to follow its promise to release Al-Khawaja and her son “as soon as possible”. The UK government has raised Al-Khawaja’s case “with the Government of Bahrain at the highest levels”, but has failed to call for her release.

The Al-Khawaja family, who have been active in Bahrain’s pro-democracy movement,  and have been harassed and targeted by authorities.

Al-Khawaja’s father, Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja, head of the 2012 Index Award-winning Bahrain Center for Human Rights, is serving a life sentence for the role he played in the 2011 demonstrations in Bahrain.

Bahrain must now adhere to its promise and free Zainab Al-Khawaja.

International groups call for immediate and unconditional release of Zainab Al-Khawaja

12 April 2016
HM Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa
King of Bahrain
Riffa Palace
Manama, Bahrain

Dear King Hamad,

We, the undersigned Bahraini and international non-governmental organizations (NGOs), would like to unequivocally condemn your government’s arrest of human rights defender Zainab Al-Khawaja along with her infant son. The implementation of Ms. Al-Khawaja’s prison sentence for merely exercising her right to free expression and assembly amounts to arbitrary detention is wholly unacceptable. While Foreign Minister Sheikh Khaled bin Ahmed Al-Khalifa indicated an intention to release her, she has not yet been freed from prison and we are concerned that these arbitrary charges remain against her. We therefore call on the Government of Bahrain to secure her immediate and unconditional release.

On 14 March 2016, security forces raided the home of Ms. Al-Khawaja’s parents-in-law looking for her. When they did not find her there, they went to her apartment and arrested Ms. Al-Khawaja along with her 15-month-old son, Abdulhadi. After they temporarily detained her and her son at the Al-Hoora police station, the authorities informed Ms. Al-Khawaja that she would be taken for a medical examination at the Ministry of Interior before being transferred to the Isa Town Detention Center to serve out her prison term. From the time of her arrest at 3:45 pm until her midnight arrival at the detention facility, security services denied Ms. Al-Khawaja any food for her son, despite repeated requests. Isa Town Detention Center has recently suffered an outbreak of Hepatitis C which puts both mother and son at risk. The demeaning and dangerous conditions of the detention center where Ms. Al-Khawja and her infant son are kept indicate a gender specific attempt to destabilize and hinder her peaceful human rights advocacy.

Bahraini courts sentenced Ms. Al-Khawaja to a total of three years and one month in prison, as well as a BHD 3,000 fine, on several charges related to her peaceful dissent and free expression. In December 2014, a court sentenced Ms. Al-Khawaja to three years and three months in prison on charges related to allegedly insulting a police officer during a peaceful protest and insulting the king by tearing up a photograph. In October 2015, Bahrain’s appeals court confirmed her conviction for insulting the king but reduced her sentence to one year in prison. Additionally, on 2 February 2016, the appeals court upheld a 9-month prison sentence against Ms. Al-Khawaja after she tried to visit her father, human rights defender Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja, in Jau Prison when he was on a hunger strike in August 2014.

The international community has repeatedly expressed grave concern over your government’s decision to prosecute Ms. Al-Khawaja for exercising her right to free expression and assembly. In 2014, the UN Chair-Rapporteur of the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention and the UN Special Rapporteurs on freedom of opinion and expression, human rights defenders, and freedom of peaceful assembly and of association urged your government to drop all charges against Ms. Al-Khawaja, warning that her detention could be considered arbitrary. A year later, these same Special Procedures issued a joint communication to your government stating that Ms. Al-Khawaja’s sentencing appears to “indicate a prima facie violation of the rights to freedom of opinion and expression and to freedom of association, as set forth in articles 19 and 22 of the ICCPR [International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights].” The United States Government has previously expressed concern over the fairness of Ms. Al-Khawaja’s trial, and – most recently – the Government of Denmark has raised Ms. Al-Khawaja’s case at the 31st session of the Human Rights Council in Geneva, insisting that she and her son be released. Furthermore, Ms. Al-Khawaja’s arrest comes during a session of the UN Committee on the Status of Women, where your government is taking part in discussions on how to protect women rights globally, while targeting women human rights defenders locally.

On 7 April 2016, the Foreign Minister, Sheikh Khaled bin Ahmed Al-Khalifa, stated that the authorities intend to release Ms. Al-Khawaja on humanitarian grounds. Sheikh Khaled provided no timeline for her release and her family has received no further guarantee that the government will release Ms. Al-Khawaja from prison. However, the foreign minister did indicate that the government will not drop any of the charges against Ms. Al-Khawaja, leaving her vulnerable to her re-arrest at any time.

We would like to join this growing chorus of international voices in calling for the immediate and unconditional release of Zainab Al-Khawaja and her infant son. The broad criminalization of peaceful dissent and free expression in Bahrain, as well as the government’s continued harassment and detention of human rights defenders, contravenes your obligations under international law, and is wholly unacceptable.


Americans for Democracy & Human Rights in Bahrain (ADHRB)
Arab Center for the Promotion of Human Rights (ACPHR)
Association for Women’s Rights in Development (AWID)
Bahrain Center for Human Rights (BCHR)
Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy (BIRD)
Canadian Journalists for Free Expression (CJFE)
Cartoonists Rights Network International
CIVICUS World Alliance for Citizen Participation
Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF)
European-Bahraini Organisation for Human Rights (EBOHR)
European Center for Democracy and Human Rights (ECDHR)
Freedom Forum
Gulf Centre for Human Rights (GCHR)
Human Rights Network for Journalists – Uganda
Human Rights Sentinel
Index on Censorship
Institute for the Studies on the Free Flow of Information (ISAI)
Institute of the Press and Freedom of Expression (IPLEX)
International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH)
International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) Asia Pacific
Justice Human Rights Organization (JHRO)
Khiam Rehabilitation Center for Victims of Torture
Lawyers Rights Watch Canada (LRWC)
Maharat Foundation-Lebanon
National Union of Somali Journalists (NUSOJ)
Nazra for Feminist Studies (Egypt)
Observatorio Latinoamericano para la Libertad de Expresión (OLA)
Pacific Islands News Association
Pakistan Press Foundation (PFF)
PEN America
PEN Canada
Saudi Organization for Rights and Freedoms
Salam for Democracy and Human Rights
Social Media Exchange (SMEX)
Vigilance for Democracy and the Civic State
World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers

Bahrain must immediately release Zainab Al-Khawaja

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Index on Censorship calls for the immediate release of human rights activist Zainab Al-Khawaja, who was arrested on Monday 14 March 2016 with her one-year-old son Abdulhadi.

“Zainab Al-Khawaja is facing retaliation for exercising her right to freedom of expression,” said Index’s senior advocacy officer Melody Patry. “Bahraini authorities have been harassing her and her family for years and this arrest — based on absurd charges — further shows Bahrain’s determination to silence its critics.”

Zainab Al-Khawaja is a prominent human rights activist and is currently facing a prison sentence of three years and one month linked to various court cases against her, including for tearing up a photograph of the king and insulting a police officer.

The conditions of Al-Khawaja’s detention at the Isa Town women’s prison are concerning. There is a risk of contracting Hepatitis C in the section of the prison she and Abdulhadi are being held; and she was told to make sure she doesn’t give her baby any water in the prison that is not bottled. Since her incarceration earlier this week, Al-Khawaja has had muscle spasms in her back due to the stress of the arrest and from carrying her baby and bags. She was taken to the hospital on Thursday 17 March, given an injection and a back brace she has wear at all times, her sister, Maryam Al-Khawaja reported.

The Al-Khawaja family have been heavily involved in Bahrain’s pro-democracy movement, and have been continuously targeted by authorities.

Al-Khawaja’s father, Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja, is the head of the 2012 Index Award-winning Bahrain Center for Human Rights and has been serving a life sentence since 2011 for the role he played in the country’s ongoing protest movement which started that year.

Bahrain activist Zainab Al-Khawaja sentenced to one year for insulting king

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Zainab Al-Khawaja was sentenced to one year for insulting the country’s king. The human rights activist faced the Bahrain Court of Appeal on 21 October 2015, her 32nd birthday.

In making its ruling, the court reduced her original sentence from three years to one, but left standing an $8,000 (£5,170) fine that if not paid would carry a penalty of one and half years in prison. She remains on bail.

Al-Khawaja is currently on bail, however, her sentence of one year for the charge of insulting a police officer was not suspended meaning she is at risk of being arrested at any time. Three other cases on appeal today, including a one-year sentence for insulting a police officer, and a nine-month sentence for entering a restricted area and a two-month sentence for ripping a photo of the king were postponed until 3 December.

Al-Khawaja’s sister Maryam Al-khawaja, who has been acting president of the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights since the arrest of Nabeel Rajab, has been reporting on the court case via Twitter. Maryam stated that although her sister now faced less jail time she is still at risk of being arrested at any time, and will have to take her baby to jail with her.