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18 November 2022

Statement on the recent judicial harassment of leading human rights defender Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja in Bahrain

Front Line Defenders is deeply concerned by recent reports of renewed judicial harassment of leading human rights defender Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja in Bahrain. Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja is an internationally respected human rights defender who won the Martin Ennals Award for Human Rights Defenders in 2022, elected by a Jury of ten of the world’s leading human rights NGOs. In 2011 he was detained, tortured and subjected to an unfair trial on fabricated charges that led to him being sentenced to life in prison because of his human rights activities. That sentence was deemed arbitrary by the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention as far back as 2012. He is also a dual Danish-Bahraini citizen.

In recent weeks, Front Line Defenders has been informed of a series of new criminal charges being tabled against the human rights defender. These new charges appear to be a direct reprisal against Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja for his continued determination to speak out in the face of injustice and mistreatment at Jau prison.

The first of the new charges concerns an incident in November 2021 when Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja was denied his right to telephone calls with his daughters. He is charged with breaking a plastic chair and “verbally insulting” a prison official. At the time, Al-Khawaja undertook a hunger strike in response to the denial of his right to telephone calls, and the telephone calls were later reinstated.

The second charge of allegedly insulting a foreign state [Israel] and insulting a public servant, relates to an incident in March 2022 when Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja chanted his opposition to the normalisation of relations between Bahrain and Israel, and refused to engage with a prison guard, an alleged torturer of a cellmate of Al-Khawaja, with the contention that he would not speak with a person who treats people like animals.

The third charge, and far in away the most serious of the allegations, is a charge of incitement to overthrow, or change, the regime, and relates to an incident in July 2022 when Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja was scheduled to attend a medical appointment; an appointment he requires due to lasting ill-effects of the well-documented torture he sustained at the hands of the Bahraini authorities at the time of his arrest in 2011. Prison authorities insisted that Al-Khawaja’s hands and feet be shackled for the duration of the transfer, despite his having a doctor’s order that he not be shackled due to his spinal injuries. In response to these punitive conditions, Al-Khawaja chanted “Down with the Interior Minister”, as the minister with responsibility for the prison system, and ultimately with responsibility for the mistreatment that the human rights defender has endured at the hands of the prison authorities.

A fourth charge relating to protesting the ill-treatment of a fellow inmate is also expected in the coming days.

Front Line Defenders calls on the Bahraini authorities to immediately drop the additional charges against Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja, and to recognise his right to peaceful protest while he remains unjustly detained in Bahrain.

Front Line Defenders also calls on the international community to renew public calls for the immediate release of Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja. It is fast approaching 12 years since his initial arrest, torture and detention, and it is clear that private diplomatic efforts on this high-profile case have ostensibly failed. It is time for concrete actions.

Background: Former Middle East and North Africa (MENA) Protection Coordinator for Front Line Defenders, former President of the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights (BCHR) and co-founder of Gulf Centre for Human Rights (GCHR), Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja has a long history of working to promote human rights in the MENA region and championing the protection of human rights defenders at risk.

In February 2011 protests and demonstrations broke out across Bahrain calling for greater political freedoms. As part of the government’s crackdown on these protests, opposition leaders and leading human rights defenders, including Adulhadi Al-Khawaja were arrested.

On 9 April 2011, up to twenty armed and masked policemen broke into the Al-Khawaja family home in the middle of the night, dragged the human rights defender down the stairs even though he agreed to go peacefully. They extensively beat him, including repeatedly kicking his head. Following his arrest he required a 4 hour surgery on his face and jaw.

On 22 June 2011, Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja was unjustly sentenced to life imprisonment.

In recognition of his struggle for human rights and democracy in Bahrain and across the MENA region, Al-Khawaja has been awarded the 2012 Freedom Award, the 2012 Politikens Frihedspris [Freedom Prize], the 2013 Dignity - World Without Torture Award and the 2022 Martin Ennals Award for individuals and organisations that have shown exceptional commitment to defending and promoting human rights, despite the risks involved.