Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, a Bahraini human rights activist, was arrested on the night of April 9, 2011. During the arrest at his family home in Bahrain, he was brutally assaulted and his jaw broken in four places. On June 22, barely two months after his arrest, he was sentenced to life in prison after a show trial in a military court that violated any principles of judicial fairness.
He has now spent more than 10 years in Jau Prison, notorious for its ill-treatment of inmates. Khawaja was granted political asylum in Denmark in 1991, later receiving citizenship, but he returned to Bahrain in 1999 during a period of political relaxation and reform. On January 22 this year, more than 100 organizations wrote to the Danish prime minister, Mette Frederiksen, calling for her government to “renew and strengthen efforts to ensure his immediate and unconditional release so he can be reunited with his family and receive much needed medical treatment and torture rehabilitation in Denmark.”
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The letter provides graphic details of the treatment meted out to Khawaja from the moment of his arrest. While blindfolded and chained to his hospital bed, he was tortured by security officers immediately after major surgery to his broken jaw, which “forced the doctor to ask the security officers to stop as it would undo the surgical work.”
Throughout his imprisonment, he has conducted hunger strikes to protest prison conditions, the curtailment of his family’s visiting rights and phone calls, and the removal from his cell of all his reading material. He has declined medical treatment when he can in protest at being strip-searched, blindfolded, and hand and leg cuffed before being seen by medical staff.
The letter to Frederiksen notes that in a recent call, Khawaja stated that “prison authorities are arbitrarily denying him proper medical treatment and refusing to refer him to specialists for surgeries he requires.” The letter adds: “[D]enying a prisoner adequate medical care violates the United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners, known as the Nelson Mandela Rules.”
A Reset in Bahrain?
With US President Joe Biden now in the White House — and multiple signals emanating from his new administration that human rights, utterly disregarded by his disgraced predecessor, are now on the front foot — the Bahraini government may want to have a reset on its own awful human rights record and its treatment of political prisoners.
Among those pressing for the reset is the New Jersey Democratic Congressman Tom Malinowski. He was unceremoniously ordered out of Bahrain in 2014 when he was the assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor under the Obama administration. Malinowski had had the temerity to meet with the head of the opposition Al Wefaq political society, Sheikh Ali Salman, a move the Bahraini regime deemed was “counter to conventional diplomatic norms.”
Sheikh Salman was subsequently arrested and, in 2018, sentenced to life in prison on charges related to the Gulf feud with Qatar that were transparently bogus. Al Wefaq was outlawed in 2017.
Malinowski may well find a bipartisan ally in Republican Florida Senator Marco Rubio. The senator is on record calling for an end to repression in Bahrain. As he argued in a letter to then-President Donald Trump in September 2019 (co-signed by the Democratic senators Chris Murphy and Ron Widen): “Bahrain is a strategic ally in an important region and, critically, Bahrain hosts the United States Fifth Fleet. It is precisely for these reasons that we are so concerned by the government of Bahrain’s concerted efforts to silence peaceful opposition and quash free expression.”
Rubio specifically mentioned Khawaja by name, noting that he and others have been jailed for peaceful protest: “These prisoners are merely representative of the thousands of others who remain locked away for exercising their right to free expression.”
As Biden settles into office, Middle East dictators are nervous. The US president has sent a clear message that the pass Donald Trump gave them to crush dissent with impunity is well and truly canceled. As they strategize on how best to deal with the new norm, sending positive messages will not go amiss.
One such message would be to release Abdulhadi al-Khawaja and the other political prisoners held in Jau simply for calling for the right to speak freely and openly without fear of consequence.
*[This article was originally published by Gulf House.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.