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Bahrain: Why Abdulhadi al-Khawaja Should Be Free

Don’t let Danish-Bahraini citizen die unjustly imprisoned, beaten, and alone

Published in: Berlingske Tidende

(Brussels) - Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, a long-time human rights defender, is on the verge of death because he refuses to accept that he should spend the rest of his life in a Bahraini prison because he led peaceful protests for political reform.

Late last month Bahrain’s King Hamad said the government had implemented the recommendations of the independent commission headed by the renowned Egyptian international law professor, Cherif Bassiouni, which looked into serious rights violations in the government’s crackdown against pro-democracy protesters a year ago. If that were true Al-Khawaja would be free today. The commission said that the government should void all military court convictions for exercising the rights to free speech and peaceful assembly. This the government refuses to do, in part because it would mean freeing al-Khawaja and others like him.

Al-Khawaja is also a citizen of Denmark, where he lived for many years in political exile before returning to Bahrain in 2001. The Danish government has requested that he be allowed to return to Denmark on humanitarian grounds. However, Bahrain’s Supreme Judicial Council – a body chaired by the king and part of the institutional shell game that passes for rule of law in Bahrain – declared that al-Khawaja’s case did not meet the “specific conditions” required by Bahraini law, without saying what those conditions were.

Al-Khawaja is dying in prison because of a life sentence handed down by military-appointed judges at the service of the ruling Al Khalifa family, following a grossly unfair trial that violated Bahraini law as well as international standards of due process. When arrested he was beaten so severely that his jaw and face were fractured in four places. At his trial Al-Khawaja said he was subjected to additional torture in detention and threats of sexual assault.

He is dying in hunger because he refuses to eat to protest the government’s unjust detention of him and other peaceful activists who dared to challenge the Al Khalifa family’s monopoly of political and economic power in Bahrain.

He is dying alone because powerful actors like the United States and the EU do not share his courage and conviction when it comes to speaking out publicly against Bahrain’s serious human rights violations. While the Danish foreign minister may have mounted a very public effort to have al-Khawaja returned to Denmark on humanitarian grounds, the rest of the international community has remained shamefully silent on Bahrain’s refusal to release al-Khawaja.

It’s beginning to look like Bahrain’s ruling family has calculated correctly that its close allies in Washington, London, and Brussels do not care enough about Al-Khawaja to risk challenging al Khalifa hardliners and their Saudi allies by publicly pushing for his release or making clear that Bahrain’s continued stonewalling will carry a price.

With al-Khawaja’s life literally hanging in the balance, the double standard the EU and the US have with regard to human rights in North Africa and the rest of the Middle East versus human rights in oil-rich Gulf states could not be more apparent. What the West supports as legitimate demands for human rights, social justice and rule of law in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and Syria matter a lot less in the case of Bahrain.

When a military court sentenced Al-Khawaja to life imprisonment for peacefully advocating democracy and human rights, there was no substantial outcry from these governments.

When Al-Khawaja was tortured and denied access to lawyers and family members, the EU, its 27 member states collectively, and the US said little publicly to press the Al Khalifas.

When Bahrain last week made it clear that it would not release Al-Khawaja to Copenhagen, the EU High representative, the EU 27 member states collectively and the country with the most leverage in Manama, the US, was silent in public, and whatever they might have said in private seems not to have carried much weight with the Al Khalifas.

Where is the collective outrage for an EU citizen imprisoned for life for peacefully advocating respect for human rights, democracy, and rule of law? Given that the EU’s commitment to support human rights defenders is an established element of the EU’s external relations policy, why hasn’t Catherine Ashton, the High Representative, spoken out on Al-Khawaja?

Denmark, although it holds the EU presidency, does not have the leverage on its own to get one of its citizens released and returned from Bahrain. While the EU presidency doesn't mean as much, in foreign policy terms, as it used to do before the coming into force of the Lisbon Treaty, the Danish Prime Minister is chairing the highest decision making body of the EU. She needs to get on the phone with all of her heads of government and state colleagues in EU capitals to ensure; first, that the EU will collectively rise to the challenge and ensure that al-Khawaja is allowed to travel to Denmark, and second, that the Danish government can speak as EU presidency and on behalf of the EU, and not merely as Denmark, when it talks to Manama.

The US, the EU High Representative, the Council President and all 27 EU member states collectively will have to step up to the plate before it is too late for al-Khawaja.

They need to send a clear and a very public message to Manama right now: If Al-Khawaja is not freed immediately and released to Copenhagen, then Bahrain will feel the consequences. The Khalifas should receive no more invitations to meetings and high powered gatherings in the US and Europe. Long overdue sanctions on all military equipment – not just policing items as at present -- will be imposed. And all joint military exercises – like the ones this past weekend involving the US, Turkey and Bahrain – will be suspended.

The silence of the EU and the US on the matter is absolutely inexcusable.  It is one thing to have a double standard with regard to human rights, it is quite another not even to raise one’s voice when a courageous human rights defender, and an EU citizen, is dying in a prison where he is unjustly held.

Lotte Leicht is EU director at Human Rights Watch.

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