Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, a long-time human-rights defender and a citizen of Denmark and Bahrain, is on the verge of death in a prison hospital in Bahrain. He has been on a hunger strike since 8 February in protest at the government's unlawful detention of peaceful activists, like himself, who dared to challenge the al-Khalifa family's monopoly on political and economic power in Bahrain.
Late last month, Bahrain's King Hamad said that the government had implemented the recommendations of the independent commission headed by Cherif Bassiouni, a renowned Egyptian law professor, that looked into serious rights violations in the government's crackdown against pro-democracy protesters last year.
If that were true, al-Khawaja would be free today. The commission said the government should annul all military-court convictions for exercising the rights to free speech and peaceful assembly. The government refuses, in part because it would mean freeing al-Khawaja and others like him.
He is dying alone because powerful international actors such as the United States and the EU are not speaking out against Bahrain's serious human-rights violations. While Denmark has mounted a very public effort to have its citizen returned on humanitarian grounds, the rest of the international community has remained shamefully silent.
Al-Khawaja lived in Denmark for many years in political exile and became a citizen there before returning to Bahrain in 2001. 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 for fulfilling Denmark's request to let him leave on humanitarian grounds. It did not say what those conditions were.
Al-Khawaja was sentenced to life in prison by military-appointed judges in the service of the ruling al-Khalifa family. His grossly unfair trial 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. In court, he said he was subjected to additional torture in detention and threats of sexual assault.
Where is the collective outrage when an EU citizen is left to die for peacefully advocating for respect for human rights, democracy, and the rule of law? The EU's commitment to support human-rights defenders is an established element of the EU's external relations policy.
It is 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 hard-liners and their Saudi allies by publicly pushing for his release or by making clear that Bahrain's continued stonewalling will have a price.
With al-Khawaja's life literally hanging in the balance, the EU and US double standards 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 the rule of law in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and Syria seem to matter a lot less when it comes to Bahrain.
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. The US, the EU's high representative personally and all 27 member states of the EU collectively need 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. A long overdue ban on military equipment of any kind to Bahrain should be imposed, and joint military exercises – like the ones this past weekend involving the US, Turkey and Bahrain – should be suspended.
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 dictator's prison where he is unjustly held.
Lotte Leicht is the EU director of Human Rights Watch.