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Bahrain Detains Activist and Her Baby Son in Ongoing 'Cat-and-Mouse' Crackdown

VICE News spoke to the sister of Bahraini human rights activist Zainab Al-Khawaja shortly after her arrest. Khawaja was taken from her home with her infant son.

by Sally Hayden
Mar 14 2016, 4:42pm

Zainab Al-Khawaja with her children. Photo via Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy

Bahraini human rights activist Zainab Al-Khawaja and her 15-month-old son were forcibly taken from her home on Monday, as the crackdown on activists and campaigners in the Gulf state continues. 

Khawaja is facing more than three years in prison for a litany of charges, including tearing up a photo of Bahraini King Hamad-Bin-Isa-Al-Khalifa.

VICE News spoke to Maryam Al-Khawaja, Zainab's sister, shortly after Zainab's arrest. "We knew there was a warrant out for her," Maryam said on the phone from New York, but "we weren't sure when they were going to come for her."

Maryam said that, given Zainab "hadn't been outspoken recently," she suspects the timing of Zainab's detention and raid was due to her own campaigning around the FIFA candidacy of Sheikh Salman bin Ibrahim Al-Khalifa, a member of the Bahraini royal family. "I think that's the reason for the timing, given she hasn't done anything differently in the past couple of days," said Maryam.

Before that, Zainab was "very active on the ground" campaigning for "human rights and democracy in Bahrain and accountability," her sister added, partaking in actions including "one-person protests. [She was] arrested multiple times, given several prison sentences, she's [also[ been on a travel ban for some time."

Zainab Al-Khawaja with her children. (Photo via Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy)

Zainab's detention also came just five days before their uncle Salah Al-Khawaja was due to be released after five years in prison.

The situation in Bahrain is "definitely getting much worse," Maryam said. "It's ironic because we were pretty optimistic about my uncle getting out in five days." She said they still weren't certain whether he would be released or just hit with another charge.

Zainab and Maryam's father is prominent human rights activist, Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja, who was sentenced to life imprisonment by a military court in June 2011, after being convicted of attempting to depose the king. In 2012, he went on a hunger strike that lasted 110 days.

Maryam said Zainab had called their mother from a police station, saying her young son was very scared so she made him go to sleep. Meanwhile, the officials there told her she was going to be taken to the Ministry of the Interior and then probably to prison.

Related: Bahraini Activist Nabeel Rajab Has Been Freed — For Now

In the meantime, Maryam said she wanted the international community to begin pressuring Bahrain to release her — calling particularly on the European Union to condemn the arrest, as the Khawajas are all Danish citizens.

Al-Khawaja's family previously told Amnesty International that Zainab would keep her son with her if imprisoned.

This comes during an ongoing and often violent crackdown on activism and freedom of speech in the Gulf state, which has continued since protests hit the country during the Arab Spring.

On the fifth anniversary of the failed uprising in February this year, Bahraini authorities detained four American journalists — on charges that included accusations of participating in an illegal gathering.

Others who remain imprisoned include Shia opposition leader Ali Salman and opposition activist Ibrahim Sharif.

In October, Farida Ghulam, the wife of opposition activist Ibrahim Sharif, described the Bahraini leadership's actions towards activists as a "cat-and-mouse game," telling VICE News how Bahraini police had come to their house in the middle of the night to arrest her husband, just weeks after his last release from prison.

Reacting to Monday's arrest in a statement sent to VICE News, Sayed Ahmed Alwadaei, director of advocacy at the Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy, said: "Bahrain is going after every outspoken opponent of the government to silence them. Zainab is punished for speaking her mind, and as a way to hurt her outspoken family. This is a repressive government, and Bahrain's allies, including Britain, must speak out against their authoritarian ally."

Related: 'It Couldn't Be Clearer That They Don't Care': Bahrain's Opposition Leader Gets Four Year Jail Term

Follow Sally Hayden on Twitter: @sallyhayd