Zainab al-Khawaja is grateful she and her family had some warning about her father's coming arrest by government security forces in Bahrain. She's grateful because it gave her time to get her 1-year-old daughter out of the house so the child wouldn't see what came next.
Although she was expecting the worst, what happened surprised even Zainab. At around 2am of April 9th, about 15 armed and masked men forced open the entrance of her building, broke down her front door and stormed into her apartment. Although her father, Abdul Hadi al-Khawaja offered no resistance and appealed to his family to cooperate so they too would not be hurt, the security forces reportedly grabbed her father by the neck, dragged him to a staircase landing and five of the men began beating him at once as he lay on the floor covering his face.
This is a photo of Zainab's father holding her daughter as a newborn:
Zainab told me she heard her father exclaim that he couldn't breathe while he was being beaten and tried to intervene. She was threatened by the men, injured on her forehead and forced back into her apartment. According to Zainab, her father was unconscious as the armed men took him away along with her husband, Wafi al-Majed, and one of her brothers in law, Hussein Ahmen. Another brother in law, Mohammed al-Maskati, says the men handcuffed him, slapped him, forced him face down on the floor along with the others, but let him go before leaving, after ordering him to stay inside. He says they recognized his name (he is the head of the Bahrain Youth Society for Human Rights) which lead to his being released.
Zainab reported that none of armed and masked men produced any identification or warrants, and one of the men who was yelling at her father to get down on the floor appeared to speak only English. The whereabouts of those being detained is not known, nor have they been allowed contact with their family members. Her tweets immediately following the arrests can be seen in chronological order here. At one point Zainab, known as "angryarabiya" on Twitter, wrote:
I knelt on the stairs and kissed the spot where I saw them beat him as he said he cudnt breath.
The beating and detainment of Abdul Hadi al-Khawaja has been characterized as adding "cruelty on top of illegality" by Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch, which has called for Mr. al-Khawaja's immediate release. Mr. al-Khawaja is a founder and former president of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights. Most recently, he worked as the regional protection coordinator for Front Line, an international organization dedicated to protecting human rights advocates before leaving in February to participate in political opposition activities in Bahrain. Front Line has also called for Mr. al-Khawaja's immediate release and said they fear that he and others are being tortured in detention. The international organization Physicians for Human Rights has also called for his release and condemned the pattern of "arbitrary arrests, which clearly violate internationally guaranteed human rights and legal standards."
These arrests without charges follow the similar capture and detention three weeks ago of Zainab's uncle, Salaw al-Khawaja, also a human rights activist. His whereabouts are also unknown.
In order to raise awareness about the human rights abuses taking place in her country, Zainab has declared that she is beginning a hunger strike and has written the following letter to President Obama [published here with her permission]:
Letter to President Obama
I write to you from Bahrain, after living through horrible injustice that I would never wish upon anyone in the world. Security forces attacked my home, broke our doors with sledgehammers, and terrified my family. Without any warning, without an arrest warrant and without giving any reasons; armed, masked men attacked my father. Although they said nothing, we all know that my father's crime is being a human rights activist. My father was grabbed by the neck, dragged down a flight of stairs and then beaten unconscious in front of me. He never raised his hand to resist them, and the only words he said were "I can't breathe". Even after he was unconscious the masked men kept kicking and beating him while cursing and saying that they were going to kill him. This is a very real threat considering that in the past two weeks alone three political prisoners have died in custody. The special forces also beat up and arrested my husband and brother-in-law.
Since their arrest, 3 days ago, we have heard nothing. We do not know where they are and whether they are safe or not. In fact, we still have no news of my uncle who was arrested 3 weeks ago, when troops put guns to the heads of his children and beat his wife severely.
Having studied in America, I have seen how strongly your people believe in freedom and democracy. Even through these horrible times many of the people supporting me are Americans who never thought their government would stand by dictators and against freedom-loving people. To the American people I send my love and gratitude.
I chose to write to you and not to my own government because the Alkhalifa regime has already proven that they do not care about our rights or our lives.
When you were sworn in as president of the United States, I had high hopes. I thought: here is a person who would have never become a president if it were not for the African-American fight for civil liberties; he will understand our fight for freedom. Unfortunately, so far my hopes have been shattered. I might have misunderstood. What was it you meant Mr. president? YES WE CAN... support dictators? YES WE CAN... help oppress pro-democracy protesters? YES WE CAN... turn a blind eye to a people's suffering?
Our wonderful memories have all been replaced by horrible ones. Our staircase still has traces of my father's blood. I sit in my living room and can see where my father and husband were thrown face down and beaten. I see their shoes by the door and remember they were taken barefoot. As a daughter and as a wife I refuse to stay silent while my father and husband are probably being tortured in Bahraini prisons. As a mother of a one-year-old who wants her father and grandfather back, I must take a stand. I will not be helpless. Starting 6pm Bahrain time tonight I will go on a hunger strike. I demand the immediate release of my family members. My father: Abdulhadi Alkhawaja. My husband: Wafi Almajed. My brother-in-law: Hussein Ahmed. My unlce: Salah Alkhawaja.
I am writing this letter to let you know, that if anything happens to my father, my husband, my uncle, my brother-in-law, or to me, I hold you just as responsible as the AlKhalifa regime. Your support for this monarchy makes your government a partner in crime. I still have hope that you will realize that freedom and human rights mean as much to a Bahraini person as it does to an American, Syrian or a Libyan and that regional and political considerations should not be prioritized over liberty and human rights.
I ask of you to look into your beautiful daughters' eyes tonight and think to yourself what you are personally willing to sacrifice in order to make sure they can sleep safe at night, that they can grow up with hope rather than fear and heartache, that they can have their father and grandfathers embrace to run to when they are hurt or in need of support. Last night my one-year-old daughter went knocking on our bedroom door calling for her father, the first word she ever learnt. It tore my heart to pieces. How do you explain to a one-year-old that her father is imprisoned? I need to look into my daughter's eyes tomorrow, next week, in the years to come, and tell her I did all that I could to protect her family and future.
For my daughter's sake, for her future, for my father's life, for the life of my husband, to unite my family again, I will begin my hunger strike.
Zainab Alkhawaja 11th April 2011
Zainab told me that she will eat again when her father, her husband, her brother in law, and her uncle are released from detention.
The government of Bahrain keeps no public registry of those who are detained. According to the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, there are an estimated 800+ people currently detained without charges or known whereabouts. Of that number, 35 are women (some pregnant) and as many as 25% of them are thought to be under the age of 18, with the youngest, Ahmed Ali Thamer Abbas Yahya, being only 12 years old.