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June 22, 2016

Abdulhadi Al Khawaja Sentenced Five Years Ago Today

By Leah Schulz

In Bahrain the past month has been marred with travel bans, attacks on opposition figures, arrests, and exiles. As the country returns to levels of repression not seen since 2011, it is important not only to focus on the latest offenses, but also to remember the many injustices absent from the headlines. Five years ago today leading human rights defender, Abdulhadi Al Khawaja, was sentenced to life in prison by a Bahraini court after a grossly unfair military trial.

Beginning with protests in 1979 at university in London, Al Khawaja has pushed for democracy in Bahrain his entire adult life. After receiving political asylum in Denmark, he established the Bahrain Human Rights Organization (BHRO). In 2001, Bahrain granted general amnesty for exiles and Al Khawaja returned to the island nation with his family. One year later, he co-founded the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights (BCHR). In the years leading up to the 2011 protests, Al Khawaja was detained, assaulted, and convicted multiple times in unfair trials for his human rights activism.  

When the 2011 pro-democracy demonstrations began, Al Khawaja led peaceful protests criticizing the regime’s crackdown and demanding accountability for torture and corruption. On April 9, 2011, over a dozen masked men broke into Al Khawaja’s daughter’s home, beat him until he lost consciousness, dragged him down the stairs, and detained him along with two of his sons-in-law.

Following several weeks of detention, during which he was extensively tortured, Al Khawaja was put on trial before the National Safety Court with 20 other Bahrainis. The special military court convicted Al Khawaja of financing and participating in terrorism to overthrow the government as well as spying for a foreign country.

Despite his imprisonment Al Khawaja continues his activism. He has gone on at least four hunger strikes, protesting against the continuing arbitrary arrests and detentions in Bahrain. In addition to his strikes, Al Khawaja has given human rights trainings to fellow inmates and has penned several letters documenting the human rights violations around him.

“I have personally been hearing the screams of the victims. The type of torture I have heard in the last few months is the worst since 2011, and the violations that have occurred over the past period are indescribable,” Al Khawaja wrote in an open letter to the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights during a 2015 hunger strike.

Abdulhadi Al Khawaja is more than just an activist. He has stood for others even when he himself was too weak to physically stand on his own. When he and eight other activists were given life sentences five years ago today, Al Khawaja raised his fist and shouted, “We shall continue on the path of peaceful resistance!” as he was hustled out of the courtroom. His perseverance makes him a national symbol of hope.