Bahrain's Authorities Continue to Target Abdulhadi Al Khawaja

Jailed Bahraini Human Rights Defender Abdulhadi Al Khawaja
Jailed Bahraini Human Rights Defender Abdulhadi Al Khawaja

In one of Bahrain’s most notorious 2011 sham trials, prominent human rights defender Abdulhadi Al Khawaja was convicted and jailed with other leading peaceful dissidents. Now he’s being targeted again, inside prison.

In early 2011 Al Khawaja was a leading figure in the pro-democracy, anti-corruption protests. When the government responded violently to the calls for reform, he was arrested and severely tortured, his injuries examined and documented a few months later by researchers of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry as Case Number 8. The report noted that “Immediately after the arrest, [he] received a hard blow to the side of his face, which broke his jaw and knocked him to the ground. He was taken to the Ministry of Interior (MoI) clinic and then the Bahrain Defence Forces (BDF) Hospital where he had major jaw surgery for four broken bones in his face.”

In the hospital he was “blindfolded the whole time and handcuffed to the bed with tight cuffs.... Security personnel in the hospital threatened him with sexual abuse and execution. They also made sexual threats against his wife and daughter.”

In prison he “spent two months in solitary confinement in a small cell measuring approximately 2.5m x 2m... 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...”

A month after his arrest on 9 April 2011 he finally appeared in court, a military court, where he told the judge about what had happened to him. when he was sentenced to life in prison he raised his hand and said, “We will continue on the path of peaceful resistance.” Outside the court the guards beat him again.

You’d think the Bahraini authorities had done enough to Al Khawaja six years ago. But he’s being punished again after writing a letter to the MoI about conditions in prison.

Al Khawaja’s daughter Maryam told me his letter came “after collective punishment against political prisoners by order of the undersecretary of the Ministry of Interior. This included the confiscation of all books, papers, pens and the shutting down of TV. There are no activities to do at all inside the prison. In addition, family visits are now so short you can barely have a proper conversation.”

In the letter he said “Even oppressive countries that arrest, torture and put people on trial, do not come back after six or seven years to retaliate against the hostages it holds due to things happening outside the prison, or even outside the country. What the Ministry of Interior is doing is not a sign of strength and courage, but rather evidence of weakness, fear and blunder. It is proof that the person in power is feeling insecure. Because he can’t face the world, he’s retaliating against people he already holds hostage.”

It’s hard to know what the authorities think they’re achieving with this sort of punishment. Washington should tell its military allies in Bahrain that these actions against leading dissidents are vindictive and myopic, and only fuel resentment inside and outside the prison. If Bahrain wants to make progress on finding a solution to its political crisis this is exactly the wrong thing to do. Introducing better prison conditions would be good, releasing the dissidents much better.

Khawaja’s later says: “If the Ministry of Interior think that their actions will affect our determination and spirit, they are making a big mistake. On the contrary, it only strengthens our will and makes us more intent on continuing on the path we’ve chosen. This reaffirms righteousness of our cause”.

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