Bahrain: Prominent human rights defender Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja facing trials for protests

25.11.22

Update: Bahrain: Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja was not brought to the hearing on 21 November 2022, despite wanting to attend. He is back in court on 28 November 2022 in two separate cases.

2022-11-18

Prominent human rights defender Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja is being taken to court in November 2022 on several charges related to his activism, including protesting against unjust treatment in Jaw Prison. The Gulf Centre for Human Rights (GCHR) is extremely concerned that Al-Khawaja is facing additional charges at a time when there are renewed efforts to free him so he can receive medical treatment in Denmark, where he is a dual citizen. 

On 16 November 2022, Al-Khawaja, who co-founded both the Bahrain Center for Human Rights (BCHR) and GCHR, had a hearing in Bahrain’s Second Lower Criminal Court related to new criminal charges linked to his protests about being denied the right to call his daughters abroad from Jaw Prison.  The hearing was postponed until 28 November, on the grounds that Al-Khawaja needed to do a power of attorney which he was going to do in-person while attending the hearing. While in a holding area, a lieutenant attempted to pressure Al-Khawaja into recording a video. He refused and was then transferred back to his cell.

His daughter Zaynab Al-Khawaja said, “I am incredibly concerned. They are threatening and intimidating him with the intent of having him make false and misleading statements by bringing him to a place where someone else was abused and insisting that he testify on video, that he did not want to go to his trial. It is a blatant violation of his judicial rights and a continuation of the reprisals against him.”

The hearing this week was the second hearing in this case. The first one was held on 3 November 2022 and Al-Khawaja did not attend. 

Another court date was scheduled for 21 November 2022 on separate charges of insulting a public servant and insulting a foreign state (Israel), but the latter charge has been removed from the government portal of cases against Al-Khawaja after his family went public.

Al-Khawaja is being charged with breaking a plastic chair and “verbally insulting” a police officer at Jaw Prison a year ago, when he was being denied his right to call his daughters who are exiled from Bahrain. He told the prison guard that it was not charity to be allowed to make phone calls to all his daughters and said, “I have the right to call my kids”. 

As documented by GCHR, at the time of the incident in November 2021, Al-Khawaja launched a hunger strike to demand his right to call his family. As a result, his blood sugar dropped to a dangerous low level. He ended the hunger strike after he was allowed to make the calls. 

A third case consists of serious criminal charges of incitement to overthrow, or change, the regime and is likely to be overseen by a high court. A court date has not yet been set for this case, which relates to inhumane treatment in late July 2022, when authorities were supposed to take Al-Khawaja to the hospital for treatment for his back. They put him in a small bus with no ventilation that is like an oven, with hard metal chairs, and insisted on shackling him, despite a doctor’s orders that he not be shackled due to his spinal injury. In response, Al-Khawaja started protesting and chanting “down with the Interior Minister”. 

Explaining his actions, Al-Khawaja told his daughter: “Because the Interior Minister is also responsible for the prisons, I hold him accountable for the way I was arrested, for the torture that I was subjected to, for the health issues I have now. When they do all of these things and mistreat us, whenever we say anything as prisoners of conscience, they reply that ‘We have our orders from up top and there is nothing we can do about it.’ What I understand from that, is that the orders they are getting are partly, or all of them, from the Minister of Interior and he is responsible for the situation that we are in.”

Al-Khawaja was sentenced to life in prison in June 2011 for his role in the popular movement that began in February 2011 during a trial that lacked the minimum international standards for fair trial, and on charges that violate his rights to freedom of expression. Al-Khawaja’s family and supporters ask you to follow the hashtag #FreeAlKhawaja and tweet your support. For more info, see FreeAlKhawaja.org

The UN Special Rapporteur on human rights defenders Mary Lawlor called for Al-Khawaja’s release on 22 September 2022 and called “on the Danish government to publicly call for his release, and to intensify their efforts bilaterally and within the European Union to have him released.” The Danish Foreign Minister also publicly stated that he believes Al-Khawaja will be freed, and during the UN Human Rights Council’s session about the UNSG’s report on reprisals under item 5, the Danish representative brought attention to the case of Al-Khawaja, who is mentioned in the report. On 13 October, US Representative Ro Khanna (D-CA) tweeted that his chief of staff, Geo Saba, traveled to Bahrain and pressed for the release of Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja and Dr. Abduljalil Al-Singace, who remains on hunger strike since July 2021.

In November 2022, Bahrain was reviewed by the UN at its Universal Periodic Review (UPR). In a joint submission, GCHR, ADHRB, BCHR and FIDH examined Bahrain’s compliance with its previous UPR recommendations and international human rights obligations, and made recommendations related to freedom of expression and assembly, and the treatment of prisoners of conscience. 

GCHR calls on the Bahraini authorities to accept the UPR recommendations to immediately and unconditionally release Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja and strongly condemns the ongoing violations by the Jaw prison administration of the civil and human rights of prisoners of conscience. 

GCHR also calls on the Danish Embassy, other diplomats, and representatives of the European Union to attend Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja’s hearings and to call for his immediate release.