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Bahrain May Have Jailed One Too Many Human Rights Activists

If Maryam al-Khawaja is convicted, Bahrain's embattled King will invite even more outrage from the international community — and Bahrainis.
Photo by amnestystudent

When human rights defender Maryam al-Khawaja stands before a judge in Bahrain for a scheduled hearing September 6, there'll be more at stake than her freedom.

Al-Khawaja faces charges of insulting Bahrain's monarch, King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa; participating in a human rights campaign; and assaulting a policewoman — a charge her defenders say is bogus. They say that in reality, al-Khawaja was jumped by four cops in the airport as she tried to enter the island kingdom in the Persian Gulf on August 30.


She faces at least seven years in prison. But the bigger issue, say human rights activists and foreign policy experts, is whether Bahrainis will grow even more restive as word of her case spreads throughout the country.

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"These ruling families think they have a tight grip on power," said Travis Brimhall of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, a Copenhagen-based group founded by al-Khawaja's father, Abdulhadi. "But the people of the country are kind of a sleeping giant."

In 2011, about 200,000 people — one out of every four Bahraini adults — took to the streets during the Arab Spring. The King needed to call on Saudi Arabian troops to cross the causeway linking the two countries and suppress the demonstration.

On Wednesday, as international pressure mounted on Bahrain to release al-Khawaja, the Bahraini government announced a crackdown on subversive activities. The ostensible reason for the crackdown was the threat of terrorism, but the state-controlled Bahrain News Agency reported that "defaming Bahrain's reputation inside and abroad" would also merit prosecution.

An estimated five people per day are "disappeared" in Bahrain and locked up for indefinite periods; prisons in the country swell with thousands of political prisoners.

According to Brimhall, Bahrain's citizens have plenty to complain about. His organization estimates that an average of five people are "disappeared" every day in Bahrain by police and locked up for indefinite periods; prisons in the country swell with thousands of political prisoners.


A citizen of both Denmark and Bahrain, al-Khawaja had been returning to the island to visit her father, who was sentenced to life in prison in 2011 on terrorism charges Brimhall says were trumped up. He started his second hunger strike on August 25 — his first lasted 110 days — and al-Khawaja reportedly wanted to see him.

"They were giving him glucose and other things to keep his blood sugar up," Brimhall said of Abdulhadi al-Khawaja's first hunger strike. "He lost 25 percent of his body weight. In the end, they drugged him, knocked him out, and put a feeding tube through his nose and kept him alive. It became apparent they wouldn't let him die, so he stopped."

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Bahrain hosts the US Navy's Fifth Fleet and the United States Naval Forces Central Command. Rachel Kleinfeld, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, says that this arrangement makes the US reluctant to condemn the government's crackdown. That said, relations between Bahrain and the US have suffered recent setbacks. Last month the King expelled an American diplomat for, allegedly, meeting with opposition leaders. That same week, the King signed an investment deal with Russia despite US sanctions imposed on Moscow for its actions in Ukraine. The White House has yet to respond, Kleinfeld said.

"We tell ourselves that we need a fleet in the [region] and that this is the only place we can put it, so this tiny island nation can get away with murder," Kleinfeld said. "It's compromising long-term security for short-term security. We see what happens when people rise up — we do nothing, and then eventually their governments fall."

Follow John Dyer on Twitter: @johnjdyerjr

Photo via Flickr