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Case History: Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja

Life in Prison
About the Situation

Bahraini authorities have cancelled an appointment that human rights defender Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja was due to have with an ophthalmologist to treat problems with his vision. Over the previous three weeks, Bahraini authorities had granted the human rights defender access to medical care on the condition that a full body strip-search could be conducted before his appointments. The human rights defender has been experiencing temporary loss of vision in his right eye, as well as headaches on the right side of his head and behind his right ear.

On 9 April 2011, Bahraini authorities arrested al-Khawaja as part of a campaign of repression following pro-democracy protests during the country's 2011 uprising. Two months later, on 22 June 2011, a Bahrain military court sentenced the human rights defender along with eight other activists to life imprisonment.

About Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja

Abdulhadi Al-KhawajaAbdulhadi Al-Khawaja is a former Middle East and North Africa Protection Co-ordinator for Front Line Defenders and former President of the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights (BCHR). He is the founder of Gulf Center for Human Rights (GCHR). He is also a member of the International Advisory Network of the Business and Human Rights Resource Centre, headed by former Irish President Mary Robinson. He has previously worked with Amnesty International, and was named as ‘Activist of the Year’ in 2005 by the Arab Program for Human Rights Activists.

23 March 2017
Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja at risk of losing sight in detention after cancelled appointment with eye doctor

Bahraini authorities have cancelled an appointment that human rights defender Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja was due to have with an ophthalmologist to treat problems with his vision. Over the previous three weeks, Bahraini authorities had granted the human rights defender access to medical care on the condition that a full body strip-search could be conducted before his appointments. The human rights defender has been experiencing temporary loss of vision in his right eye, as well as headaches on the right side of his head and behind his right ear.

On 21 March 2017 the family of Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja obtained a letter from an ophthalmologist which stated that the symptoms the human rights defender is currently experiencing “are consistent with severe eye disease that needs immediate attention by an ophthalmologist. Untreated this can lead to lasting reduced vision.” Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja, who is currently being held in Jau prison, had previously been scheduled to attend an appointment with an ophthalmologist which was cancelled following the human rights defender’s refusal to be subjected to a full body strip-search by Bahraini authorities. This refusal is due to the invasive nature of the search.

Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja is currently serving a life-sentence as part of a campaign of repression exercised by the Bahrain government following pro-democracy protests during the 2011 uprising. Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja was arrested and beaten unconscious by police in Al-Manama on 9 April 2011. Following this arrest he was held in incommunicado detention, brutally beaten, and severely tortured.

Front Line Defenders urges the Bahraini authorities to allow Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja to have immediate and unconditional access to an ophthalmologist, and take all measures to guarantee his physical and psychological integrity and security. Front Line Defenders also urges the Bahraini government to immediately drop all charges and release Abdulhadi Al- Khawaja as it believes he is being detained solely as a result of his peaceful and legitimate human rights work.

11 May 2015
Open Letter from Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja to the High Commissioner for Human Rights

Bahraini human rights defender Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja published a open letter to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights via the Gulf Center for Human Rights on Sunday, 10 May 2015.

Al-Khawaja is a Bahraini human rights defender, currently serving a life sentence in the Gulf kingdom. He is the former President of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights (BCHR), the founder of theGulf Center for Human Rights (GCHR), and a former Middle East and North Africa Protection Co-ordinator for Front Line Defenders.

In his letter, Al-Khawaja reported that abuse, torture, and degrading treatment continue in Bahrain's prisons, and urged the Commissioner to "pressure the Government of Bahrain to allow access to Jaw prison by international bodies."

Read the opening of Al-Khawaja's letter below:

His Excellency Prince Zeid Ra’ad Al-Hussein
UN High Commissioner for Human Rights
Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights
Palais Wilson Geneva, Switzerland
Re: Humanitarian appeal from Jaw Prison

Geneva, May 10, 2015,

Your Excellency,

I started a hunger strike on the 20th of April due to the ongoing violations occurring at Jaw prison where I have been held as a prisoner of conscience for the past 4 years. Building 10 in Jaw prison has become known as the torture building, and 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.

The prison administration has systematically attempted to prevent this information from getting out by harassing us during phone calls and family visits. The Government of Bahrain has recently announced a limited “royal pardon” to receive positive international reactions, while the horrific violations in the prisons continue.

Attached to this letter is compiled information about some of the violations at Jaw prison recently in addition to reports written by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty. I have written numerous letters to authorities in Bahrain about the situation in Jaw and informed them of my hunger strike; my letter to you comes after the authorities have refused to address the situation and put an end to the ongoing violations. The letters I sent:

To the prison administration on the 30th of March
The Minister of Interior on the 1st of April
The Supreme Judicial Council on the 6th of April
Follow up letter to the Minister of Interior on the 4th of May

I have heard about your dedication to human rights from family and colleagues, and urge you to pressure the Government of Bahrain to allow access to Jaw prison by international bodies like your office. It will make significant difference to the situation inside Jaw prison if there is public attention from your office on the matter. The crackdown inside Jaw prison continues to the time of writing this letter, and I appeal to you to act quickly.

Best regards,

Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja

Jaw Prison

The full text of Al Khawaja's letter can be found here via the Gulf Center for Human Rights.

9 September 2014
MEPs call for the immediate release of Maryam Al-Khawaja, Abdulhadi al-Khawaja and all those wrongfully imprisoned in Bahrain

A group of MEPs has called for the release of Bahraini human rights defender, Maryam al-Khawaja, who is currently in detention in Manama on trumped-up charges.

On Saturday, 30 August, Maryam Al-Khawaja, daughter of imprisoned human rights defender Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja, and a prominent HRD in her own right, was detained at Bahrain's airport upon her arrival to visit her father in hospital, where he was taken after beginning a hunger strike earlier in the week.

Following the denial of entry on the grounds that she does not have Bahraini citizenship (despite her presenting her Bahraini ID card upon arrival), Maryam was detained and ultimately taken to prison for 7 days of so-called 'investigation'. Her lawyer, Mohammed Al-Jishi has been denied access, but has indicated that charges against her include 'insulting the king.'

The full statement by the group of MEPs is below:

We, Members of the European Parliament, call for the immediate release of prominent Bahraini/Danish human rights defender Maryam al-Khawaja, who was detained upon her arrival in Manama on the 30th of August. Maryam took the decision to fly to Bahrain upon hearing that her father, Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, who began a hunger strike on August 24, was in danger of slipping into a coma.

Maryam is now being held in remand at Isa Town prison, charged with allegedly assaulting a policewoman at the airport. She was told that she was also facing charges for leading a campaign called Wanted for Justice in Bahrain (which named government officials responsible for torture) and for insulting the King. According to her lawyer, Maryam's Bahraini citizenship has now been stripped.

We consider that these charges are politically motivated and urge the Bahraini authorities to release Maryam unconditionally, along with all other prisoners of conscience - political activists, journalists, bloggers, doctors and paramedics, human rights defenders and peaceful protesters.

We urge the HR/VP and Members States to condemn the on-going violations of basic human rights and fundamental freedoms in Bahrain and publicly press for their release, including at the forthcoming session of the UN Human Rights Council, and stress the European Parliament's calls for imposing targeted restrictive measures (visa bans and asset freezes) against those individuals responsible for, and involved in, the human rights abuses (as documented by the BICI report).

Signed by:

  1. Ana GOMES (S&D)
  2. Christel SCHALDEMOSE (S&D)
  4. Jens ROHDE (ALDE)
  5. Jeppe KOFOD (S&D)
  7. Margrete AUKEN (Greens/EFA)
  8. Marietje SCHAAKE (ALDE)
  9. Morten Helveg PETERSEN (ALDE)
  11. Rina Ronja KARI (GUE/NGL)
  12. Tunne KELAM (EPP)
25 August 2014
Bahrain - Human rights defender Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja starts a hunger strike

On 24 August 2014, human rights defender Mr Abdulhadi Al- Khawajadeclared that he was starting an open hunger strike to protest the continuation of his arbitrary arrest and detention.

On Sunday 24 August 2014, Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja informed his family of his decision to start a hunger strike on the following day in protest of his continued “arbitrary detention.” The human rights defender has said will refuse all food and drinks except for water. He has also said that he will refuse “to be taken to any hospital, the prison clinic or to receive any IV treatment during his strike,” because he was subjected to forced feeding in hospital during his previous hunger strike..

On 22 June 2011, the National Safety Court sentenced human rights defender to life imprisonment on charges including “organising and managing a terrorist organisation” and “attempt to overthrow the government by force and in liaison with a terrorist organisation working for a foreign country”. The trial before a military court failed to meet international fair trial standards and no credible evidence was presented to substantiate the charges.

Human rights defender Mr Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja was arrested and beaten unconscious by police in Al-Manama on 9 April 2011. He was held in incommunicado detention, brutally beaten, and severely tortured.

On 29 January 2012 human rights defender Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja started an open-endedhunger strike to protest against his brutal arrest and detention, his torture while in custody, and the life sentence handed down after an unfair trial before a military court. The hunger strike lasted for 110 days and the human rights defender was reportedly drugged and forced fed by painful procedures.

Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja previously, as a result of torture, suffered four fractures to the side of his face that required a four-hour operation. Reportedly, he continues to have health problems from his last hunger strike. Given his pre-existing health problems Front Line Defenders is extremely concerned about the health of human rights defender Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja.

9 April 2014
Third Anniversary of Arrest: Calls for the Release of Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja

International human rights organisations and local Bahraini civil society groups call for the immediate and unconditional release of human rights defender (HRD)Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja on the third anniversary of his arrest.

Mr. Al-Khawaja was arrested three years ago today and continues to require medical attention for injuries sustained during his arrest and subsequent torture.

On 09 April 2011, the Bahraini police carried out a violent raid on the home of the HRD during the brutal clampdown on pro-democracy demonstrations in Bahrain. Abdulhadi and two of his sons-in-law were beaten and taken into custody, where they were denied access to family or lawyers.

Abdulhadi was charged with membership of a terrorist organisation and calling for the overthrow of the Government. During his arrest Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja was so badly beaten that he required major surgery on his jaw. Subsequently, he was repeatedly ill-treated in custody, subjected to an unfair trial and ultimately sentenced to life imprisonment, a sentence which was upheld on appeal. At no point were any of the serious and credible allegations of torture addressed.

Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja is a respected human rights defender who for many years has worked peacefully for the promotion and protection of human rights, both in Bahrain, and across the MENA region. He is also former Protection Coordinator for the MENA region with Front Line Defenders and a former president and co-founder of the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights (BCHR).

Mr. Al-Khawaja was sentenced to life in prison in June 2011 by a military court as part of a group of human rights activists and political leaders known as the Bahrain 13. We believe that Mr. Al-Khawaja is being unjustly persecuted for his legitimate human rights activity.

In its September 2012 decision, the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention concluded that Mr. Al-Khawaja’s arrest was due to his exercise of the fundamental rights to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly, and association. According to the Working Group, the charges against Mr. Al-Khawaja—including membership of a terrorist organization— were “vague” and “raise doubts as to the actual purpose of detention.”  The Working Group also concluded that throughout Mr. Al-Khawaja’s arrest, detention, and trial, “the Government violated numerous international norms to the right to fair trial.”

The Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI) further concluded that Mr. Al-Khawaja was subjected to torture and inhumane treatment during his arrest and detention. Mr. Al-Khawaja was severely beaten, resulting in a broken jaw, and later spent two months in solitary confinement where he was subjected to physical, psychological and sexual torture. A full testimony from Mr. Al-Khawaja regarding his torture can be found here.

Mr. Al-Khawaja continues to be denied adequate medical attention and suffers from severe medical complications as a result of his mistreatment in detention. Mr. Al-Khawaja has reported that he has cramps in his facial muscles from metal plates and screws that were set in his jaw after it was broken by security officials in four places in 2011. Mr. Al-Khawaja also continues to experience acute pain due to an injury to his coccyx sustained during torture in 2011.

Mr. Al-Khawaja and his family have repeatedly requested that the various operations he is in need of are performed by an independent doctor due to legitimate concerns about the impartiality of the doctor appointed by the Bahrain Defense Force Hospital, Dr. Al-Muharraqi, who in 2011 stated that Mr. Al-Khawaja was not subjected to torture. It is also deeply alarming that during his most recent examination, Dr. Al-Muharraqi informed Mr. Al- Khawaja that his entire medical file had gone missing from the system. Mr Al-Khawaja’s lawyers have been requesting a copy of his medical files since 2011, as it would serve as evidence of the multiple injuries and medical conditions caused by torture.

Despite his incarceration, Mr. Al-Khawaja and his colleagues continue to be the target of defamation campaigns. On the 27 February, 2014, a 12 minute video published on YouTube accused Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja, activist Zainab Al-Khawaja, BCHR PresidentNabeel Rajab and BCHR Acting President Maryam Al-Khawaja of inciting terrorism, “taking the country hostage” and branding them as racists. The video included footage that could have only been obtained from official authorities, including the use of an interview with a police officer which requires the approval of the Ministry of Interior. The video unjustly targets the four human rights defenders as a result of their legitimate activities and could be seen to incite violence against them given the accusations presented.

In an attempt to test the legal procedures of combating defamation of human rights defenders in Bahrain, Mr. Al-Khawaja submitted a complaint to the Jaw Prison Administration which was then submitted to the Public Prosecutor in response to a degrading article about Mr. Al-Khawaja published on 28 May 2013 in the Gulf Daily News (GDN). In response, the GDN published a letter on 22 May 2013 accusing Mr. Al-Khawaja of “instruct[ing] rioters to attack military bases in Bahrain and is one of the master planners for an armed military coup.” Nearly a year later, no steps have been taken to address Mr. Al-Khawaja’s complaint.

Front Line Defenders founder and Executive Director Mary Lawlor said:

"The case of Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja is a stark reminder of the risks human rights defenders run when they confront the arbitrary abuse of power in Bahrain, where the law is used as an instrument of political oppression rather than as a mechanism to defend the rights of citizens."

Ms Lawlor added that, "by any objective standard of justice Abdulhadi Al- Khawaja should be released immediately and unconditionally. While his continuing imprisonment is an indictment of the political and legal system in Bahrain his courage and commitment to the defence of human rights is an inspiration to all of us who know and respect him."

The undersigned civil society and human rights organizations call for the immediate and unconditional release of Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja as well as immediate access to independent medical examination and treatment. In addition, we urge the Bahraini authorities to cease harassment and persecution of human rights defenders including unwarranted defamation campaigns.


  1. AMAN Network for Rehabilitation and Defending Human Rights
  2. Americans for Democracy and Human Rights in Bahrain (ADHRB)
  3. Bahrain Center for Human Rights (BCHR)
  4. Bahrain Human Rights Observatory (BHRO)
  5. Bahrain Human Rights Society (BHRS)
  6. Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy (BIRD)
  7. Bahrain Interfaith
  8. Bahrain Rehabilitation and Anti-Violence Organization (BRAVO)
  9. Bahrain Youth Society for Human Rights (BYSHR)
  10. Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies (CIHRS)
  11. Canadian Journalists for Free Expression (CJFE)
  12. CEARTAS – Irish Lawyers for Human Rights
  13. CIVICUS: World Alliance for Citizen Participation
  14. European Bahraini Organisation for Human Rights (EBOHR)
  15. Front Line Defenders
  16. Gulf Center for Human Rights (GCHR)
  17. Gulf Civil Society Associations Forum (GCSAF)
  18. Human Rights First (HRF)
  19. International Media Support (IMS)
  20. Khiam Rehabilitation Center for Victims of Torture
  21. Lawyers Rights Watch Canada (LRWC)
  22. LuaLua Center for Human Rights (LCHR)
  23. No Peace Without Justice (NPWJ)
  24. PEN American Center
  25. Pen International
  26. The Arab NGO Network for Development (ANND)
  27. The National Lawyers Guild International Committee
  28. The Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders (OMCT-FIDH)
  29. Tunisian Initiative for Freedom of Expression
  30. Vivarta
21 March 2013
Abdulhadi and Zainab Al-Khawaja on hunger strike

On 17 March 2013, human rights defenders Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja andZainab Al-Khawaja began a hunger strike to protest against a new requirement by prison authorities that they wear prison uniforms.

The hunger strike began after authorities refused to allow visits by relatives unless the human rights defenders complied with this new rule. It has been reported that Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja's health is deteriorating rapidly and that he has been refused medical treatment.

Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja is a prominent human rights defender and former Front Line Defenders Protection Coordinator for the Middle East and North Africa, who is serving a life sentence passed following a grossly unfair trial.

His daughter Zainab Al-Khawaja is also a prominent human rights defender and a blogger who has been active in calling for political reform and democracy in Bahrain. She currently remains in detention in Hoora Detention Centre.

22 June 2011
Human rights defender Abdulhadi Al Khawaja receives life sentence after unfair trial marred by serious and credible allegations of torture

Former Front Line Protection Coordinator for the Middle East and prominent member of the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights, Abdulhadi Al Khawaja was sentenced to life imprisonment on 22 June 2011 by a military court in Bahrain. Front Line deplores and condemns the life sentence passed and the sentences handed down to the other 20 activists at the same court sitting including the 15 year prison sentence passed in absentia on blogger and founder of Ali Abdulemam and calls for both men to be acquitted. Abdulhadi Al Khawaja was viciously assaulted and arrested on 9 April 2011and since his arrest he has been reportedly subjected to torture, ill treatment and attempted sexual assault. Fair trial procedures have been grossly and continuously violated throughout his detention and court hearings.

The following is a list of examples of the flagrant breaches of Abdulhadi Al Khawaja's right to a fair trial at the hands of the Bahraini authorities:

1. He was held incommunicado and reported that he was tortured following his arrest.

2. He was denied access to his lawyer during his initial 20 days in detention. This constitutes a violation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) to which Bahrain is party, namely its Article 14 which requires States to ensure access to full access to legal representation and adequate time to prepare the defence.

3. He was tried before a military court which describes itself as the “Bahraini Lower National Safety Court”. The bringing of civilians to trial before a military court, is in open contradiction of established international jurisprudence. It is also of dubious legality under Bahraini law and the Bahraini Constitution. However, an appeal to the Constitutional Court in this regard was refused by the National Safety Court.

4. The sitting of the Bahraini Lower National Safety Court in Abdulhadi Al Khawaja's trial also appears to be unconstitutional on the basis that, inter alia, some of the charges brought against the defendant had been made before this court was established in accordance with a State of National Safety declared by the King of Bahrain on 15 March 2011.

5. Abdulhadi Al Khawaja attempted to speak at each of his previous trial hearings on the 9th, 12th and 16th of May and make complaints about the torture he claims to have endured. On each occasion he was silenced by the judges who refused to investigate the claims of torture. This constitutes a violation of Bahrain international obligations under Article 12 of the Convention Against Torture (CAT), which it acceded to on 6 March 1998. CAT Article 12 requires States to conduct a prompt and impartial investigation wherever there is reasonable ground to believe that an act of torture has been committed. The visible signs on Abdulhadi Al Khawaja's face provided a strong indication that an act of torture was committed.

6. Abdulhadi Al Khawaja and his family were intimidated by court officials who seemed to consider them responsible for the presence of international trial observers. During the hearing of 12 May, the Al Khawaja family was eventually not allowed to see him in apparent retaliation for the presence of trial observers in the court building.

Front Line is seriously concerned by yesterday's verdict and the denial of Abdulhadi Al Khawaja's right to a fair trial and the denial of such a right to the other 20 activists including human rights defenders sentenced yesterday. Front Line reiterates its call on the Bahraini authorities to immediately release all human rights defenders and to guarantee in all circumstances that they are able to carry out their legitimate human rights activities without fear of reprisals and free of all restrictions including judicial harassment.