Abdulhadi Al Khawaja is a long time advocate for human rights in Bahrain and has been one of the key figures in the international debate on the human rights violations taking place in the Arab Gulf region against political activists and human rights defenders. He is the founder of the Gulf Centre for Human Rights (GCHR), the Bahrain Centre for Human rights (BCHR), a member of Frontline Defenders, and a member of the International Advisory Network of the Business and Human Rights Resource Centre. Having been educated in the UK and facing exile from Bahrain from early on in his career, Mr. Al Khawaja developed his advocacy from afar and was determined to bring about democratic and social reform in the Kingdom of Bahrain. While Mr. Al Khawaja experienced many successes through the various organisations he established, unfortunately his return to Bahrain in 2011 ended in arbitrary arrest and a life sentence in prison for his work in human rights abroad.
His education in Denmark during his asylum shaped Mr. Al Khawaja’s human rights approach and initiated a life long campaign for victims of torture and mistreatment in Bahrain, as well as the general human rights violations taking place within the State. Mr. Al Khawaja quickly became a person of interest once he returned to the Kingdom through his public statements of criticism against the Prime Minister and the royal family’s governing system. In addition, Mr. Al Khawaja became very vocal regarding the discrimination and increasing divide between the Shia and Sunni sects which were being provoked by the government themselves. When the Arab Spring uprising reached Bahrain, Mr. Al Khawaja was a key player in encouraging the public to demonstrate for their rights, as well as outlining the key issues and abuses being perpetrated by the government. This ultimately led to persecution and an attempt to silence Mr. Al Khawaja by arresting and detaining him along with other prolific opposition leaders and public figures of the democratic movement.
On the 8th April 2011, officers dressed in civilian clothing arrived at the house of Mr. Al Khawaja’s daughter, and dragged the victim out of the house without any presentation of an arrest warrant. He was beaten during his arrest and his family members were subjected to aggressive attacks also during this time. The beatings were so violent that Mr. Al Khawaja was left with a broken jaw that required a week’s stay in the hospital, during which time police officers continued to harass him with threats of sexual assault against his female family members. Once he had been discharged from the hospital, Mr. Al Khawaja was taken to AlQurain prison where he was forced into solitary confinement for two months, cutting off any communication with family and the outside world. What followed were varying forms of psychological and physical torture, and on the 22nd June 2011 Mr. Al Khawaja was given a life sentenced in prison by a military court for charges of organising and managing a terrorist group as well as attempting to overthrow the government and collecting funds for terrorist activity.
The next decade in prison was full of cruel and inhumane treatment of Mr. Al Khawaja and his fellow prisoners of conscience. Over the course of ten years, Mr. Al Khawaja has conducted various hunger strikes in protest of the mistreatment and negligence he received from officials within the prison. On the 29th October 2012, Mr. Al Khawaja’s first major hunger strike began in response to the torture and mistreatment of the prisoner during his interogation and detention, as well as the unfair trial and sentencing he received for falsified charges made against him. This strike lasted 110 days and was forcibly ended through drugging and force feeding of Mr. Al Khawaja. However, this did not stop the prisoner from continuing to highlight the injustices taking place against human rights defenders and political prisoners in Bahrain.
On the 25th August 2014, Mr. Al Khawaja initiated another hunger strike in which he proclaimed he would only consume water and would refuse any admission to a medical facility after the response to his last hunger strike in the prison. At that time, he was prevented from contacting family members and was forcibly fed through a nasogastric tube. Very quickly, the international community flagged the dangers of the hunger strike, with one expert stating that due to his extremely low blood sugar levels, the prisoner only had a matter of 15 days until his body would give out. This did not stop Mr. Al Khawaja from continuing this practice throughout his imprisonment as an effective form of protest of the treatment and conditions of his detention. While he did not take up another significant hunger strike until last year, Mr. Al Khawaja did take steps to formally criticise and publicise the human rights violations committed by the Bahraini government against its citizens.
On the 16th October 2017, prison officials confiscated prisoners’ belongings as part of a prison wide search. These items were kept ‘under investigation’ and were not returned to the prisoners. In addition to these measures, a ban on television, radio, and any form of publication or media was instituted, and access to daily activities, pen and paper were all prohibited. These sanctions pushed Mr. Al Khawaja to respond. In November 2017, Mr. Al Khawaja wrote a letter to the Ministry of the Interior detailing his mistreatment and the abhorrent conditions in which political prisoners and prisoners of conscience are forced to endure. In this letter, Mr. Al Khawaja directly addressed the government in their malpractices regarding the treatment of detainees and the systemic pattern of torture and abuse taking place against prisoners of conscience. He further stated that this would not break the spirit of the movement and the beliefs of those who dedicate their lives to protecting and promoting the rights of the people. These powerful statements were met with contempt and reprisals by the department who revoked Mr. Al Khawaja’s access to phone calls until the 17th December of that year. However, international support strengthened with independent organisations like Frontline Defenders carrying out demonstrations in front of the Embassy of Bahrain in London every day for the month of January 2018 as a show of solidarity with the human rights defender.
Most recently in 2021, Mr. Al Khawaja yet again took up a hunger strike as an act of protest of the confiscation of personal belongings and the denial of access to visitation of family members, amongst the other countless forms of mistreatment that both he and his fellow political prisoners were exposed to. On the 16th November 2021, daughter of the prisoner Zainab Al Khawaja announced that Mr. Al Khawaja would take up another hunger strike to challenge the prison’s decision to restrict his social contact even more through the prevention of phone calls to family members.
The most pressing concern for Mr. Al Khawaja’s case is the medical negligence and deprivation he has experienced throughout his prison sentence so far. Injuries incurred from the initial bouts of torture during the first weeks of his arrest and detention have had a lasting affect on the prisoner’s health. This form of punishment has been the most prevalent form of persecution and reprisal for Mr. Al Khawaja’s continuous advocacy despite his circumstances and mistreatment as a result. In addition to chronic pain in his neck and hip as a result of the beatings he has received, Mr. Al Khawaja also experienced severe injuries in his head that have led to a serious case of glaucoma that is quickly developing into blindness. If left untreated, complete loss of sight is likely. Much of the media coverage of Mr. Al Khawaja’s case has centred around his health and the conditions he is facing. On the 16th February 2022, Mr. Al Khawaja was reportedly found chanting slogans of solidarity with Palestine during the time that the Israeli Prime Minister was visiting Bahrain and according to the prisoner’s daughter Maryam Al Khawaja, the denial of her father’s medical treatment at that time can be considered an act of retaliation by the prison board.
Since the beginning of 2022, the retraction of medication and the refusal to provide Mr. Al Khawaja with the appropriate medical attention he requires has been the main focus of human rights organisations’ advocacy for Mr. Al Khawaja’s case. At present, the prisoner requires reparative surgeries but his family is being denied the medical records to support these claims as the authorities claim these records have simply been lost. Any medical appointment since the beginning of 2022 that has been scheduled for Mr. Al Khawaja has either been cancelled or the patient has been prevented from attending. On one particular occasion in January 2022, Mr. Al Khawaja was driven to a doctor’s appointment but was forced to remain in the vehicle for three hours and was then returned to the prison without ever seeing the medical professional. He has also had necessary blood tests delayed and his physiotherapy sessions have also been cancelled in the past few months. While Mr. Al Khawaja has communicated the various reprisals he has experienced as a result of his continued outspokenness on the human rights violations of the Bahraini government, the denial of medical care he has been subjected to came as a surprise and has sent a very clear message of mercilessness towards those who criticise the system.
International response to Mr. Al Khawaja’s plight has been strong in the past year in particular. Many human rights organisations including Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and the United Nations, have all reported on the case of Mr. Al Khawaja and have called on foreign powers to pressure the Bahraini government into providing the urgent medical care needed to the prisoner, as well as a call for his immediate release and the release of all political prisoners in the country. In terms of the European Union, multiple questions have been submitted to parliament raising concerns over the safety of Mr. Al Khawaja, and the general circumstances of freedom of expression and prisoners of conscience in Bahrain. Questions were submitted by MEPs Fulvio Martusciello on the 15th April and the 5th May 2021, and MEP Nikolaj Villumsen on the 17th November 2020. The EU has also voted on resolutions addressing the human rights situation in Bahrain with special mention of Mr. Al Khawaja, both on the 14th June 2018 with a total of 479 votes in favour of the resolution, and on the 11th March 2021 with a total of 689 votes in favour of the motion.
Despite this perceived support, not enough has been done for Mr. Al Khawaja by the European Union. As a citizen of Denmark, both the Danish government and the EU have a responsibility to protect the safety and interests of their people, and Mr. Al Khawaja is no exception. Abdulhadi Al Khawaja should never have been imprisoned in the first place, and he should not still be held in detention for crimes he did not commit that were manufactured to punish him for the exercise of his basic human rights. ECDHR condemns the actions of the Bahraini government and calls on both the state of Denmark and the EU institutions to act on Mr. Al Khawaja’s behalf and demand his freedom immediately and unconditionally.