Hunger striker Abdulhadi Alkhawaja to be retried in civilian court

Bahrain’s Court of Cassation yesterday ordered a retrial in a civilian court for activist and hunger striker Abdulhadi Alkhawaja and twenty other activists. Alkhawaja was originally sentenced to life in prison by a military tribunal in June 2011 for his involvement in last year’s anti-government protests.

Despite ordering a re-trial, the court decided to keep Alkhawaja and the other activists in custody while their cases are reviewed.

The Bahraini government claim the trial will be revisited as an entirely different case, which falls in line with the recommendations of the Bahrain Independent Commission for Inquiry (BICI) report released last November. According to recommendation 1720, all cases tried by the military court should be re-reviewed by a civilian court.

In a press conference yesterday, Alkhawaja’s wife Khadija al-Moussawi expressed her disappointment that her husband has not been freed. She told reporters that her spouse is being tied to a bed and force fed, even though the activist has been on hunger strike for more than 80 days. al-Moussawi does not believe her husband can get a fair trial saying: “It’s the same system, same court in different clothes, same people running the show”.

Twenty medics jailed for treating injured protesters were also granted retrials despite international pressure on the Kingdom to void their convictions. Said Yousif, of Bahrain Centre for Human Rights (BCHR) expressed doubt that the 20 can ever find justice.

“The Minister of Justice was involved in charging the doctors before their trials were complete, yet he is a senior official in implementing the BICI report’s recommendations, which is not fair” said Yousif, echoing the words of al-Moussawi.

Wafi al-Majed, Alkhawaja’s son-in-law said the opposition would have positively greeted the development if prisoners were released to await trial. He expressed concern that retrial could “go on for a long time”.

Reports of the activist’s deteriorating health have led many to believe that he is already nearing death, and his continued detention only increases the likelihood that he might die in prison.

Yousif said the continued detention means its hard for the protesters to build faith in the Bahraini government’s claims of reform. “Officials guilty of torture should be held accountable, and political detainees should also be freed. This would shed a positive light on any reform process” he told Index.

Meanwhile, Alkhawaja’s daughter Zainab Alkhawaja who blogs as Angry Arabia, remains in prison after she was arrested on 21 April, while protesting the Bahrain Grand Prix. Information is limited but according to her husband, she faces four charges.

In the past Alkhawaja has been arrested and released but her mother fears that this time her daughter, who she describes as a “headache for the government”, may be kept in prison long-term.


Bahraini activist Abdulhadi Alkhawaja deteriorating rapidly in prison

Bahraini human rights activist Abdulhadi AlKhawaja is now entering the 58th day of his hunger strike, having spent his 51st birthday yesterday in a prison clinic.

His lawyer has tweeted a picture of him in his weak and critical state, a far cry from the smiling and lively man that he once was, even though his principles remain unchanged. Mary Lawlor, executive director of Front Line Defenders, said that the activist is “at serious risk of imminent organ failure” after returning from a trip to Bahrain this week. She also reported that he has “shed 25 per cent of his body weight.” On 4 April he was transferred to a prison clinic for observation. Despite official documentation of his torture in prison and several calls for his release, Alkhawaja still remains imprisoned, serving a life sentence handed for peacefully protesting at Pearl Roundabout last year.

Alkhawaja’s  daughters Zainab and Maryam credit their father for their commitment to human rights and peaceful tactics, and have inherited his passion and determination in speaking out against human rights violations in Bahrain. Both women have been careful to avoid focusing attention on a single individual, even as their father’s condition has worsened. They have recently decided to speak about their own family for a change, as his state is leading many to believe that Alkhawaja nearing the end of his life.

Maryam, who also serves as the Head of Foreign Relations for the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights, wrote on Thursday that she finds it “difficult to remain impartial” and avoid focusing on more personal causes, but continues to persevere, fearing the moment when she will receive a phone call telling her her father is dead. Zainab recently wrote a poem about her father entitled, “The sultan digs my father’s grave,” in which she grimly describes watching her father dying. Despite feeling despair, she describes her father as being “tranquil” and pushing her to remain committed to fighting for human rights.

Several international human rights organisations have pushed on the Bahraini government to release the activist, who is also a Danish citizen. Danish Foreign Minister Villy Soevndal called for his release or retrial by a civilian court back in March, yet such calls are still ignored.

AlKhawaja has become a symbol of a non-violent movement in the tiny country, and his death could solidify the already mounting disillusionment within Bahrain’s opposition. The country’s largest opposition group, Al-Wefaq, released a statement earlier this week condemning the activist’s continued detention, warning that his worsening condition would only inflame tensions and that “the regime is responsible for the consequences.” Lawlor, of Front Line Defenders, also warned of the grave consequences of Alkhawaja’s death in prison, stating that it would only “cause a great deal more unrest.”

What little faith there was in the government’s commitment to reform has been lost in many ways, and AlKhawaja’s release would only confirm that the royal family’s promises to carry out the recommendations of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry report served as nothing more than an elaborate exercise in public relations — rather than a commitment to human rights. AlKhawaja’s death would only ensure a deeper divide in an already polarised debate.


Bahrain: For freedom

Prominent Bahraini human rights defender Abdulhadi Al Khawaja has been serving a life sentence since April 2011 for his involvement in anti-government protests last year. Al Khawaja has now been on hunger strike for 26 days. His daughter, Zainab Al Khawaja, also a human rights activist, writes about her imprisoned father.

When my father started his current hunger strike, he was already weakened as he had just ended a seven-day hunger strike 48 hours before. On the 10th day of this hunger strike my father was taken to the hospital, having collapsed in prison. He was taken back to the hospital on day 13, again on day 17 and again on day 24. Each time the doctor pleaded with him to just eat something, anything; each time my father refused, reiterating that he would only leave the prison free or dead.

That previous seven-day strike, undertaken with his 13 co-defendants/co-inmates, was made to protest the ongoing imprisonment of those who had taken to the streets last February and March and were being punished for demanding civil liberties and democracy. For my father, it was personal as much as political — his younger brother was sitting in the same prison as him. His two sons-in-law were arrested with him and also subjected to torture. His wife was fired from her job of 10 years by order of the Ministry of Interior.

My father is not a fanatic; or rather he is only a fanatic when it comes to believing that every person should have her or his basic human rights respected in full. He has worked his whole life for this principle, by documenting and reporting abuse, by training others to do the same, by working to effectively campaign for human rights, by speaking out against abuse and by joining with others to peacefully protest when rights are systemically trampled.

Abdulhadi Al Khawaja with his granddaughter, Jude

Following his arrest, my father refused to give up on the struggle for human rights; he continued his human rights work behind the walls of a military prison, at a site that is not found on any map. My father paid a high price for speaking out on several occasions in the military trial about the torture he and others were subjected to. When his two-month solitary confinement came to an end my father engaged in discussions in the prison, continuing to spread human rights education and the example of nonviolent protest. My father gave the other political prisoners a full course in human rights. He then asked the commander of the prison for paper so he could write certificates for his fellow inmates to document that they had completed a human rights education course.

When I was growing up with my sisters, and we were living outside Bahrain, my dad would talk about the day we would return and the kind of country we would one day live in — where all our rights would be respected, where we could live with dignity and freedom. We did return to Bahrain in 2001, but what we returned to was not my father’s dream. Though not the nightmare it has since become, it was clear even then that there were limits to individual rights and as a community, one group in Bahrain faced systemic discrimination. My father could not live with that, and so he did what he always did — he started working for human rights and opened the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights.

Abdulhadi Al Khawaja with the current director of the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights, Nabeel Rajab

When the uprising in Bahrain started last 14 February, inspired by events in Tunisia and Egypt, my father quit his job with international human rights organisation Front Line Defenders and went to Pearl Roundabout to join the youth, who seemed all at once to have heard his message. This may have been the closest my father got to his dream, those days at Pearl, but now he is caught in the worst of nightmares. But even here he is teaching, leading by example and proving to be the most dangerous kind of men — the kind whose ideals cannot be shut away.

My father is Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja. He has been beaten, jailed, tortured, abused, sentenced to life in prison in a sham court trial, harassed, intimidated, had his family punished and seen friends and loved ones face harm. The last person who saw my father found him very thin, barely able to walk, stand or even sit up. But they also saw a sparkle in his eye. My father has spent his life struggling for others; he would rather die fighting the only way he can, than to ever give up on his dream. My father is Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja, and he is on the 26th day of his hunger strike for freedom.

Zainab Al-Khawaja, daughter of Abdulhadi Al Khawaja, and known as @angryarabiya on Twitter, is a Bahraini activist. Like her father, she has been jailed for protesting. She is a dual Danish and Bahraini citizen

“Angry Arabiya” arrest belies Bahrain government commitment to reform

A few weeks ago, I traveled as a part of a delegation to Bahrain to investigate the state of free expression and attend the presentation of the report of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry, which was commissioned to investigate what occurred in February and March. During my time in Bahrain, I met Zainab Al-Khawaja (@angryarabiya).

In my time with her, I grew to respect and admire her world view and strength. We had many conversations about Bahrain, her experiences as an activist, and I learned a great deal about her perspective. While perhaps at times uncertain about the future of Bahrain, Al-Khawaja was always clear on one thing: she believes in peaceful protests, and she was not alone in this.

As with her past interactions with security forces, Al-Khawaja used peaceful tactics today to express her views, just like she always has. To be arrested for demonstrating peacefully does not signal turning over a new leaf, as the Bahraini government says that it aims to do.

Many are quick to cite the examples of oil spills, molotov cocktails or road blocks as reasons to discredit protesters or members of the opposition. While I was in Bahrain, I attended a demonstration prior to security forces arriving, and it was peaceful. However, at a separate demonstration in Sitra, I did see molotov cocktails being thrown at security forces, much like New York Times journalist Nicholas Kristof did this past week. While such tactics are worrisome, and human rights organisations in Bahrain have been quick to condemn their usage, I believe that unfortunately, they are merely a reaction to the situation at hand. Focusing on such tactics seems to only serve as a distraction from a much greater problem.

Many Bahraini officials, including King Hamad, have been vocal about about moving forward, reconciliation, and accepting the results of the report, which confirmed  human rights abuses during February and March. Following the reading of the report, King Hamad said, “The government welcomes the findings of the Independent Commission, and acknowledges its criticisms,” an official Bahraini statement said. “We took the initiative in asking for this thorough and detailed inquiry to seek the truth and we accept it.”

Bahrain’s government has publicised steps to create change, including the hiring of two new overseas police officers (including former Miami police chief John Timoney, well-known for his ability to crush protests) and forming a committee to explore the implementation of the commission’s findings. Even so, such goals are more long-term, and do not address the current situation. If the government expects to move forward, and gain trust from those who do not believe that the commission was nothing more than a exercise to repair the international reputation of Bahrain, then it is important to allow protesters to demonstrate, and to change the crackdown on protesters on the ground.