Activist Maryam al-Khawaja to return to Bahrain to push for father's release
A daughter of a long-detained human rights activist in Bahrain said Thursday she would return to the island nation to press for his release while he and hundreds of other inmates are on a major hunger strike and even though she could be imprisoned as well.
The trip by Maryam al-Khawaja draws renewed attention to the plight of her 62-year-old ailing father, Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, a dual Danish-Bahraini national convicted of internationally criticised terrorism charges and held in what a United Nations panel calls an “arbitrary” imprisonment ever since.
It also raises the stakes of the monthlong hunger strike in Bahrain just ahead of a planned visit to the United States by Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa. It has become one of the longest-sustained demonstrations of dissent in the decade since Bahrain, aided by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, violently suppressed its 2011 Arab Spring protests.
“I am afraid, I am terrified of what it potentially means for me to travel back to Bahrain,” al-Khawaja told The Associated Press in an interview before her announcement. "But if it means potentially saving my father’s life or for me to get to see him, if it means helping any number of political prisoners in Bahrain and bringing attention to their plight, then I’m willing to put my fear aside and do what is necessary to try and achieve that.”
Bahrain's government did not immediately respond to a request for comment regarding Maryam al-Khawaja's planned trip. It earlier sought to minimise the impact of the hunger strike in statements sent to the AP.
“The situation is being handled professionally and constructively to ensure the health and well-being of the detainees in question, whilst safeguarding the rule of law and order,” the government said on Aug. 29.
It also insisted that “mistreatment of any kind is not accepted in Bahrain,” though a U.S. State Department report it referred to in its statement described “inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment by the government.”
The hunger strike began Aug. 7 at the Jaw Rehabilitation and Reform Center, a facility holding many of the prisoners identified by human rights activists as dissidents who oppose the rule of the Al Khalifa family.
It quickly accelerated into a protest now involving over 800 prisoners, according a list compiled by the Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy, an advocacy group. Bahrain's government insisted Thursday only 112 were taking part.
The AP could not independently confirm the figures, though activists have released audio messages and other details that support hundreds taking part. Small-scale street protests also have occurred in recent weeks.
The prisoners' demands include their right to worship, ending 23-hour lockdowns daily and arbitrary isolation by guards, securing family visits and being provided adequate health care.
Abdulhadi al-Khawaja has been refusing to eat since Aug. 9, his daughter said. He undertook a 110-day hunger strike a decade earlier to protest his detention that saw him ultimately force-fed by authorities. He's faced “severe physical, psychological and sexual torture” over his years of imprisonment and his health issues put him at increased risk, his daughter said.
“He’s currently on hunger strike because he’s been denied adequate medical treatment for months, including access to a cardiologist due to his heart problems,” Maryam al-Khawaja said.
Maryam al-Khawaja said she planned to travel to Bahrain next week around the same time of the crown prince's visit to Washington. Plans include her being accompanied by other human rights activists to ensure her safety. However, she faces a variety of charges still on the island, including what she described as unclear terrorism charges that could carry a life sentence.
“I know that it carries very high consequences and high risks, my going back," al-Khawaja said. "I’ve reached a point where I can no longer sit around and wait for that phone call where I find out that my father has died in prison. ... I have reached the point where I am willing to put myself and my physical safety at risk if that means that there’s any chance that I can save my father’s life.”
She said her father was aware of her plans, as were other diplomats. Al-Khawaja, like her father, also has citizenship in Denmark.
The Jaw Rehabilitation and Reform Center is toward the southern end of Bahrain, an island off the coast of Saudi Arabia in the Persian Gulf that’s about the size of New York City with a population of around 1.5 million people. Concerns over medical care at the prison have been raised before by activists.
The State Department’s recent human rights report on Bahrain noted prisoners’ families reported a tuberculosis outbreak at the prison in June 2022. The government denied an outbreak took place, but inaugurated a 24-hour clinic at the prison months afterward, the State Department said.
Bahrain, home to the U.S. Navy’s Mideast-based 5th Fleet, is in the midst of a decade-long crackdown on all dissent following the Arab Spring protests, which saw the island’s Shiite majority and others demanding more political freedom. It has imprisoned Shiite activists, deported others, stripped hundreds of their citizenship and closed its leading independent newspaper.
Meanwhile, Bahrain has recognized Israel diplomatically and hosted Pope Francis last November . Western nations in the past have tried pressing human rights matters in closed-door meetings in the Middle East, particularly in Bahrain.
Western governments “prioritize their security and economic relations with the Bahraini government ... generally above the prioritizing of human rights and democratic values,” al-Khawaja said, calling the move short-sighted. "I think history teaches us that governments that are ruled by erratic dictators are not dependable allies, even when it comes to economic and security alliances.”