Ten years on, Abdulhadi al-Khawaja is still in prison

Today, April 9th marks the tenth anniversary of the arrest of the prominent human rights defender Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, who is serving a life sentence in Jau prison in Bahrain.

Abdulhadi al-Khawaja has been involved in human rights since a young age in Bahrain, which forced him into exile. In 1991, he was granted political asylum in Denmark, where he established the Bahrain Human Rights Organization. Al-Khawaja returned to Bahrain in 2001 under a general amnesty and resumed his peaceful struggle for democracy. He is former President and co-founder of Bahrain Center for Human Rights (BCHR), a former MENA Protection Coordinator for Front Line Defenders, a co-founder of Gulf Center for Human Rights (GCHR), and a member of the International Advisory Network of the Business and Human Rights Resource Centre. Al-Khawaja was also part of Amnesty International’s fact-finding mission in Iraq. He has received many international awards in honor of his struggle for democracy and human rights in Bahrain.

Al-Khawaja has been arrested many times since his return to Bahrain in 2001. In September 2004, BCHR was closed down, and al-Khawaja was arrested after calling out the Prime Minister at the time. He remained in detention during his two-month trial and was sentenced to one year in prison, which he did not serve, as he was granted a royal pardon and released. In February 2007, he was arrested again and charged with “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.”  His arrest, along with others, sparked a series of demonstrations and strong condemnation from the opposition, which later led to their release on bail.

Following a speech al-Khawaja made on 7 January 2009, in which he referred to the government as an “oppressive regime,” the Attorney General charged him with “propaganda to overthrow or change the political system by force, publicly instigating hatred and disrespect against the ruling regime,” and “willfully broadcasting false and malicious news, statements or rumors and spread provocative propaganda related to the internal affairs of the country that could disturb public security and cause damage to the public interest.” A travel ban was also issued against him. Throughout his work in human rights, al-Khawaja has been subjected to numerous defamation campaigns, death threats, travel bans, and judicial harassment.

The last arrest was on 9 April 2011 for his involvement in the Bahraini Uprising, where he was sentenced to life in prison by a military tribunal. According to al-Khawaja’s testimony to the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI), he was arrested at dawn while staying with his daughters by police and masked men in plain clothes. He was “thrown on the ground, rolled downstairs, kicked and beaten with sticks. His hands were cuffed behind his back, and he was blindfolded.” 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 MoI [Ministry of Interior] clinic and then the BDF [Bahrain Defense Force] Hospital where he had major jaw surgery for four broken bones in his face.” Al-Khawaja spent seven days in the hospital blindfolded and handcuffed to the bed. Afterward, he was moved to al-Qurain Prison, spending two months in solitary confinement, where he was subjected to severe physical, psychological and, sexual torture. Al-Khawaja sustained physical injuries and lost 12 kg during his time in detention.

In May 2011, he went on trial before a military tribunal, “the National Safety Court.” He was sentenced to life in prison on 22 June 2011 for “organizing and managing a terrorist organization,” “attempt 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.” Al-Khawaja was charged under the Bahraini Penal Code, Law No. 58 of 2006 With Respect to The Protection of Community Against Terrorist Acts, and Law No. 32 of 2006 With Respect to Public Meetings, Processions, and Gatherings. No evidence was presented in court to support the charges raised against him. Al-Khawaja complained in court that he had been tortured and ill-treated, but the judges refused to listen to him and open an investigation. On 7 January 2013, Bahrain’s Highest Court (civilian court) upheld his life sentence. During his detention and trial, he went on numerous hunger strikes protesting his ill-treatment and unjust detention.

There have been repeated calls from international human rights organizations to release al-Khawaja, especially as he suffers from health problems resulting from the torture to which he was subjected during detention. He has had multiple face surgeries but still suffers from chronic pain and requires additional surgery to fix the broken bones in his face which have not healed properly since he was attacked during his arrest. His facial bone structure is permanently damaged.

Al-Khawaja is completing ten years in prison this year after a trial described as “grossly unfair” by the UN human rights bodies, many international human rights organizations, and governments for lack of due process and coerced confessions. In 2012, the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention concluded that Mr. al-Khawaja’s arrest was arbitrary due to his exercise of the fundamental rights to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly, and association and in contravention of articles 19, 20, and 21 of the UDHR and articles 9(3), 14, 21 and 22 of the ICCPR.

Based on the above, BCHR calls on the government of Bahrain to:

  • release Abdulhadi al-Khawaja unconditionally, as his imprisonment is linked to the exercise of his right to freedom of expression and assembly as stated in the opinion submitted by the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention;
  • hold accountable all those involved in his torture and ill-treatment and bringing them to justice;
  • release all prisoners of conscience and those arrested for exercising their right to freedom of expression and assembly.