If you want to know what perseverance and courage look like, look no further than Maryam al-Khawaja.
Day after day, year after year, the Bahraini-Danish human rights defender has been fighting for the release of her father and other democracy defenders wrongly jailed in Bahrain. And now, she’s risking her own freedom by heading to Bahrain herself, where she faces arrest, abuse, and long-term imprisonment.
Her father, Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, is co-founder of the Gulf Center for Human Rights and the Bahrain Center for Human Rights. Like his daughter, he is also a dual Bahraini-Danish citizen. He was arrested in 2011 for his role in pro-democracy protests in Bahrain and is serving a life sentence following a ludicrously unfair trial.
Though he may be the most prominent of Bahrain’s political prisoners, Abdulhadi al-Khawaja is far from being the only one behind bars in Bahrain for exercising the right to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly.
The Bahraini government’s repression and brutality are well known. They have silenced political opposition in the country and banned independent media for years. Authorities have arrested, prosecuted, and harassed rights defenders, journalists, and opposition leaders, sometimes for nothing more than their social media posts.
Conditions in the prisons where they throw these innocent people are abysmal, and authorities deny access to independent rights monitors and the UN special rapporteur on torture.
In his 12 years of imprisonment, al-Khawaja has been subjected to severe psychological, physical, and sexual torture. Bahraini authorities have repeatedly denied the 62-year-old essential health care, despite his life-threatening cardiac problems.
He has been on hunger strike since August 9 to demand access to specialist medical care. But again, he is far from alone.
More than 400 inmates in the country’s largest prison initiated a hunger strike on August 7 to protest their conditions and denial of health care. The movement has been growing: as of August 30, more than 800 people were on hunger strike. And remember, many of these folks should never have been put in prison in the first place.
At the same time, Bahraini Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa is heading to Washington this week. The official visit, in the words of The Washington Post, is “designed to demonstrate US staying power in the Persian Gulf.” Bahrain, the paper highlights, is home to the US Navy’s 5th Fleet, which it notes, “gives Washington leverage” in the case of al-Khawaja and others.
If Maryam al-Khawaja can have the courage to risk her life for democracy and human rights in Bahrain, the least the Biden Administration can do is show the political strength to use its leverage to call on its allied government to free its political prisoners.