Call for the urgent release of Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja

The Bahrain Centre of Human Rights (BCHR) calls for the urgent and immediate release of Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, who is sentenced to serve a life sentence in Bahrain’s Jau Prison. He has been jailed since April 9th, 2011, and this year marked his twelfth year in prison. His commitment to the freedom of expression and peaceful assembly remains inspirational to all those who persevere for a human rights-defending Bahrain.

Al-Khawaja’s commitment to fighting for human rights began in 1979, at the age of 18, when he protested in London against a series of arrests made in Bahrain. When his passport was denied renewal, Al-Khawaja returned to Bahrain and found his fellow students detained and tortured for their activism. This, followed by his family house being ransacked and searched, forced Al-Khawaja to seek safety abroad. In 1991, he was given political asylum by the Danish government and organized the Bahrain Human Rights Organization (BHRO) – an independent human rights group that earned international respect for its persistency and non-partisan nature.

In 2001, al-Khawaja was granted general amnesty by the Bahraini government, and upon returning to Bahrain, founded the Bahrain Center for Human Rights (BCHR). He also served as the MENA Protection Coordinator for Front Line Defenders and carried the spirit of human rights past Bahrain by co-founding the Gulf Center for Human Rights and serving on Amnesty International’s fact-finding missions in Iraq. Yet, whereas numerous international organizations recognized Al-Khawaja for his struggle for democracy, his return to Bahrain was marked by a repeated series of unfair trials, arrests, and prolonged detention.

In September 2004, al-Khawaja was arrested for criticizing the Bahraini prime minister and government for human rights abuses and corruption but was later given a Royal Pardon by King Hamad. In 2005, Bahraini security forces violently dispersed Al-Khawaja during a protest against the government’s mismanagement of the national unemployment problem and state budget, necessitating hospital treatment. In February 2007, al-Khawaja was once again arrested for “promoting change to the political system through illegitimate means” and “an intention to change the governing system of the country, circulating false information, insulting the king and inciting hatred against the regime.” Al-Khawaja has also been the target of travel bans, judicial harassment, and smear campaigns in the media, but the most notorious suppression against his work came in April of 2011, when he was arrested brutally from his daughter’s home.

During his arrest, he was dragged by the neck and was subject to severe physical and sexual torture; his facial jawbones were also broken, for which he had to undergo an immediate operation. At trial, he was charged with “organizing and managing a terrorist organization”, “attempting to overthrow the Government by force and in liaison with a terrorist organization working for a foreign country” and the “collection of money for a terrorist group” – ultimately being sentenced to life on June 22, 2011. His trial was found unfair by UN human rights bodies and his numerous attempts to shine light on his ill-treatment have been ignored by numerous judges.

As such, his detention has been marked by a series of hunger strikes to protest what he deems an illegal and unjust detention. Within the first year of his imprisonment, he lost more than 14 kilograms and in 2021, later reached blood sugar levels of 2.4. Amid detention, al-Khawaja has also been denied medical care – raising concerns that he could even go blind after being refused treatment for a suspected glaucoma; Amnesty International suspects this medical negligence is a form of retaliation for shouting pro-Palestinian slogans in the prison yard when Israeli Prime Minister visited Bahrain in 2022. Earlier this year, in March 2023, al-Khawaja was also withheld from a pressing visit to the cardiologist after experienced cardiac arrhythmia.

His unwavering commitment to the freedom of expression and peaceful assembly has also garnered international attention, with numerous parties like the UK Foreign Office, Amnesty International, Danish Foreign Ministry, Front Line Defenders, and the European Parliament calling for the Bahraini government to release al-Khawaja. Sharing their sentiments, we call for Abdulhadi al-Khawaji to be released from unjust detention. Specifically, we call on the Bahraini government to:

  • Free Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja from unjust detention, one dubbed a retaliation by the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention for merely exercising his right to freedom of expression and assembly.
  • Provide urgent and crucial medical treatment to Al-Khawaja, particularly concerning his cardiovascular health, vision, and the torture he has endured during imprisonment.
  • Undergo thorough and complete investigations and accountability mechanisms concerning Al-Khawaja’s plightful treatment in prison, including – but not limited to – torture, sexual abuse, beatings, and medical negligence.
  • Release similar prisoners in Bahraini detention who have unjustly been held for practicing freedom of expression, assembly, and other rights that have been recognized as internationally protected under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.