Lucy Popescu

Maryam al-Khawaja

I have written in these pages previously about the case of Bahraini human rights defender Abdulhadi al-Khawaja (LR, October 2012), who in 2011 was among twenty-one peaceful dissidents convicted by a special security court of ‘plotting to overthrow the government’ and sentenced to life imprisonment after reporting on human rights abuses in the country and calling for political reform. As a result of the torture and physical violence to which he was subjected following his arrest, al-Khawaja had to have thirty-six screws and eighteen metal plates put in his face. He has undertaken a number of hunger strikes to protest at his detention and ill-treatment.

On 29 August 2014, his daughter Maryam al-Khawaja, co-director of the Gulf Center for Human Rights and a dual Danish-Bahraini national, travelled to Manama intending to visit her father, who is once again on hunger strike, at serious risk to his life, in the notorious Jaw prison. The authorities arrested Maryam as she disembarked from the aeroplane at Bahrain International Airport. She was held incommunicado for about thirteen hours, during which time her family and lawyer were denied any information as to her wellbeing. She was finally allowed to call her mother. She informed her that she was being transferred to the office of the public prosecutor.

Maryam was interrogated on trumped-up charges of ‘assault and battery against on-duty public employees during their performance of official duty’. The public prosecutor alleges that she attacked a lieutenant and another policewoman and injured them when they asked her to hand over her mobile phone. The public prosecutor refused to allow Maryam to meet with her lawyer before the interrogation. Her lawyer was also prevented from talking to her about her legal rights during interrogation. He has filed a legal complaint with the public prosecutor.

The officials who first detained Maryam at the airport claimed that she is not a citizen of Bahrain and was therefore not allowed into the country. She has never been presented with any legal documentation to this effect and the authorities have refused to provide her with any supporting evidence that she is no longer a Bahraini citizen. She had travelled on her Danish passport and holds a valid Bahraini-issued identity card. It is unclear whether the charges have been brought against her as a Bahraini or Danish citizen.

The public prosecutor’s statement confirmed that Maryam was under arrest from the moment of her return to Bahrain, calling her a ‘female suspect’ but not making clear the charges related to the initial arrest. It ordered her detention for seven days, pending investigation into the ‘assault and battery’ charge. She was subsequently moved to the Isa Town women’s prison and placed with two convicted criminals. Although she was allowed to call her family, they were not able to visit her after the authorities complicated the visiting procedures.

Upon her arrival, Maryam stated that she would not voluntarily leave Bahrain and that she would begin a hunger strike in protest, with her only demand being that she be allowed to remain in the country. She refrained from any food, juice or supplements, but reportedly ended her hunger strike on 31 August out of concern for her father, whose health is very fragile.

Like her father, Maryam has been active in criticising the Bahraini authorities from abroad. She gave evidence at a US Congressional hearing on Bahrain and has had regular meetings with Congress members. It is widely believed that she has been targeted for her international advocacy work. The United Nations has expressed concern about ‘ongoing violations’ of freedom in the country.

On 6 September Maryam’s detention was extended for a further ten days. She appeared in court with her arm in a sling and denied the charge of assaulting police at the airport. She called the accusation ‘vindictive and fabricated’. If committed, she faces a maximum sentence of two years in prison. Ten days later the Bahraini courts extended Maryam’s detention until at least 1 October. The following day, after another short hunger strike, Maryam was allowed to visit her father with the rest of her family, but she was returned to detention immediately afterwards. On 18 September, after English PEN joined more than 150 organisations in co-signing an open letter to King Hamad of Bahrain, calling for Maryam’s release, she was set free. PEN remain concerned that the charges against her and the travel ban have not been dropped.

There are also serious concerns for Maryam’s general safety and wellbeing, particularly considering the history of abuse to which her family has been subjected. Maryam’s uncle is in prison in Bahrain and her sister Zainab has been subjected to repeated arrests, long-term detention, harassment and physical abuse. She has written about her father’s imprisonment and currently faces ongoing charges related to her peaceful protests and calls for her father’s release.

Abdulhadi has been on hunger strike since 24 August. On 6 September he called his wife. She said his voice was very weak. When she asked about his health he said, ‘Emotionally I am strong, physically it’s not in my hands any more.’ He added, ‘It’s not that I want to die; it’s just that if I live I want to live as a free man.’

Readers might like to send appeals calling for the immediate release of Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, and seeking assurances that all charges against him and his daughter Maryam al-Khawaja will be dropped, and urging the Bahraini authorities to abide by their obligations under Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and release all those currently detained in Bahrain solely for the peaceful expression of their opinions.

Appeals should be sent to:

His Majesty Sheikh Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa, King of Bahrain
Fax: 00 973 176 64 587

Sheikh Khalid bin Ali al-Khalifa
Minister of Justice and Islamic Affairs
Fax: 00 973 175 31 284

H E Ambassador Ms Alice Thomas Samaan
Embassy of the Kingdom of Bahrain
30 Belgrave Square, London SW1X 8QB
Email: info@bahrainembassy.co.uk
Fax: 020 7201 9183 

Follow Literary Review on Twitter