Bahrain: Bahrain: When we tried to visit Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja

18.04.18

It was two in the morning on Wednesday 04 April 2018. The silver-haired passport official in the crisp white uniform stood behind the glass of Booth 16 at Bahrain’s Airport.

He looked at my landing card, trying to decipher my appalling writing. “I’m here with this guy, a member of the Danish parliament,” I explained. “We’re here to visit the jailed human rights defender Abdulhadi Al-…”

“Khawaja,” the officer finished for me. “Ah yes…”

Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja, founder of the Gulf Centre for Human Rights (GCHR), is one of the most famous people in Bahrain, an instantly recognised name, a veteran rights activist known across the world for his years of peaceful dissent against Bahrain’s dictatorship.

The MP -Lars Aslan Rasmussen- and myself had arrived in Bahrain in an attempt to see the Danish citizen Al-Khawaja in jail, where he has been for seven years. He has been tortured, sexually assaulted, given a sham trial, and sentenced to life in prison. 

The passport guy, super polite and mildly panicked, told us to wait outside a small office where an animated discussion took place over the next 30 minutes as more officials piled in and occasionally came out to stare at Lars and myself as we tweeted what was happening.

Eventually one of the passport staff came out to clarify which Al-Khawaja we were hoping to visit: Abdulhadi or one of his daughters? I explained that both of his daughters, Zainab and Maryam, who had also been jailed for their peaceful dissent, were released years ago and now lived in exile in Europe. “Oooooh…” he mouthed.

After another hour or so Lars and I were moved back behind the passport booths next to the Formula One Welcome Desk. The annual Grand Prix was a few days later, and we waited next to posters and leaflets welcoming fans for the race.

Several hours later a group of passport officials gathered in front of us. One nervously stepped forward and explained that neither Lars nor myself would be allowed into the country “for security reasons.”  I asked the guy his name and he said “Hussain Yousif,” but refused to write it down for me. He repeated that we were being denied entry because “Security” had deemed us both a security risk. 

We asked for our passports back. They refused. We were left to amble about the small airport, unclear when we would be able to leave. The incident was generating significant publicity about Al-Khawaja in Denmark, where it soon became front page news in the dailies. International news wires began to cover the story, replacing Bahrain’s soft PR about the Formula One race with analysis of its horrific human rights record.

Bahrain’s prisons are full with thousands of prisoners, many of whom have been tortured into making false confessions. People are jailed for tweeting criticism of the government, opposition political groups are banned, and last year executions resumed for the first time in many years.

Later in the morning another passport official came to find us. An unpleasant little man, he said it was his job to retain our passports. We asked why we couldn’t have them back. “It’s my job” he kept repeating, exasperated at our failure to understand why the same people who ordered us to leave the country were holding onto our passports.

We spent over 24 hours in the airport, giving media interviews and tweeting about Al-Khawaja and other human rights defenders jailed in Bahrain, including Nabeel Rajab and Naji Fateel. It seemed a decent way to mark the 50th anniversary of the death of Martin Luther King.

The officials finally returned our passports (what were they doing with them in that office for 25 hours?), and we boarded a plane out at 3.30am on Thursday for Istanbul, and then onto Copenhagen. That night Lars was a guest on Danish TV’s most popular chat show, reminding the public that one of their own is a leading human rights defender in prison in Bahrain, and that their government’s policy of quiet diplomacy is failing to secure his release.

Al-Khawaja has spent the last two and half thousand days in jail. It’s time for the Danish government and European Union officials to take responsibility to have him released, to stop kidding themselves that behind closed door discussions with Bahrain’s violent dictatorship will work, and impose real consequences unless he is freed.

For more information about the human rights mission conducted by Lars Aslan Rasmussen, a Danish Member of Parliament, and Brian Dooley, a member of the Gulf Centre for Human Rights (GCHR) Advisory Board, who wrote this article, see: https://www.gc4hr.org/news/view/1823