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Bahrain’s long walk to freedom – Those who defy tyranny can bear no shackles

THE LEVANT – Written by Catherine Shakdam – As news of Abdel Hadi Al Khawaja’s ill health, one of Bahrain’s most prominent rights activists and well-known figure of the opposition,  hit the stands, Maryam, his daughter and co-director of Bahrain Centre for Human Rights jumped in a plane, so desperate she was to stand by her father’ side.

Following years of self-imposed exile in Denmark, where she felt she would best serve her people’s plight for freedom, Maryam chose to ignore the dangers her return to Bahrain inherently posed to her person out of sheer filial loyalty. As her family remained behind in Bahrain to stand guard against state oppression, Maryam has worked from afar to keep her father’s legacy alive.

While Maryam’s thought only of her father, the authorities saw in her return an opportunity for revenge they could not miss.

If one can easily empathize with a child’s desire to stand by their parents’ side at a time of great distress, if anything, to offer comfort and affection, it is harder to imagine that a government would stand in a way of such a reunion out of spite and a petty sense of retribution. And yet pettiness and cruelty were what awaited Maryam Al Khawaja at Manama international airport.

As she boarded off the plane, Maryam was met by security officials who informed her that her presence in Bahrain would not be tolerated and that she was in infraction of the law. The same officials went on to declare that her nationality had been revoked.

Although Maryam was born Bahraini, from Bahraini parents, themselves the son and daughter of Bahraini nationals, King Hamad ibn Issa Al Khalifa’s government chose on account of her advocacy work to strip Maryam of her birth-right, in complete defiance of international law.

When Maryam demanded to be presented with documents proving that she had indeed been de-nationalized, she was then taken into police custody, on undisclosed charges.

As many have learned over the years, justice and equity are luxuries only the King can dispense … and as it happens he seldom does.

If Bahrainis have come to live in perpetual fear of the monarchy so violent has been the state-run repression campaign against pro-democracy protesters and activists, no family has suffered more than Al Khawaja by the hands of the regime – beaten by police, dragged in the mud by the media, unlawfully imprisoned, condemned to lengthy prison sentences, brutalized and gagged, Al Khawaja clan has endured all humiliations and ill-treatments.

Defiance is a family business

2If Abdel-Hadi Al Khawaja has come to embody Bahrain’s revolutionary spirit over his decades of advocacy and activism, his family has stood by him, acted for him and through him every step of the way. The father of Bahrain revolution as some like to call him, Al Khawaja raised his daughters to be his legacy. For Al Khawaja and his kin, freedom is a not a matter of fact but a matter of being.

As often in life it is at times of great sorrow and despair that courage is forged.

If South Africa had its Nelson Mandela, Bahrain was gifted the Al Khawajas … and boy do they fight!

As Maryam stands prisoner in Bahrain jail, awaiting to be brought before a judge on September 6th on charges of alleged assault against two police officers, charges which Bahrainis understand to have been fabricated to justify the state unlawful stance against all Al Khawaja, a family tragedy is unfolding before us, one which needed not to happen, one we still could prevent to take place.

It all stems back from April 9, 2011, when Abdel-Hadi Al-Khawaja was arrested and tried as part of a campaign of repression by the Bahraini authorities following pro-democracy protests in the Bahraini uprising. In June 2011, he was sentenced to life in prison alongside eight fellow rights activists. Undeterred, Al Khawaja began an open hunger-strike to protest what he qualified as his unlawful detention. His struggle “freedom or death” caught the imagination of hundreds of thousands of Bahrainis and garner much international media attention. On the 110th day of his hunger-strike the authorities decided to intervene by forcing feeding Al Khawaja, thus putting an end to his campaign.

On March 2012, Amnesty International declared Al Khawaja a prisoner of conscience, calling for his immediate and unconditional release.

In reaction to her father’s arrest as well as that of her brother in law, Mohammed Al Maskati  Zainab Al Khawaja went on a 10-day hunger strike. As her profile rose both within and without Bahrain, Zainab became the focus of the Al Khalifa’s wrath. Following a series of arrests and several intimidation attempts, Zainab was finally arrested and tried for “illegal gathering of more than five people” and “participating in an illegal march.” She was sentenced to a year imprisonment. She too was declared a prisoner of conscience by Amnesty International.


Walk to Freedom

On the day of her arrest in Manama, Maryam sent the following message to the world,“If this letter has gone public then it means that the Bahraini authorities have not let me into the country. Due to this, I have decided to launch a water-only hunger strike and to refuse to leave the Bahraini airport. I will continue the hunger strike until I am allowed in to Bahrain to see my father.I want to make it clear that I refuse any and all food or treatment during my hunger strike.”

As of August 30 at 3:00am local time all communications have been lost with Maryam, safe from a report from her solicitor confirming that she refused to be questioned without proper legal counsel. The Danish Embassy has so far failed to make mention of Maryam’s predicament. Maryam and her family hold a dual, Bahraini-Danish nationality.

Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy has said to be extremely concerned over Maryam’s arrest. “We remind the authorities in Bahrain of their obligations under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights specifically,” said BIRD in a statement.

On August 31, Maryam was transferred to Bahrain Isa Town Women’s Prison following her interrogation at the Public Prosecution. She was questioned without a lawyer and spent the night in a jail cell.

On September 1st, Bahrain authorities confirmed that Maryam Al Khawaja had been formerly charged with the following: “Insulting the king on social media, the ‘Wanted for Justice’ Campaign, and assaulting a policewoman”; no mention was made of the revocation of her nationality even though officials initially used this claim to detain her while still at the airport.

While Maryam stands behind bars, yet another prisoner of conscience, yet another victim of Bahrain state-run repression, many activists, among whom Hussain Jawad, Chairman of the European-Bahraini Organisation for Human Rights (EBOHR) have said that Al Khawaja and Bahrain have only just began their walk to freedom.

Already a campaign calling for Maryam’s release has been launched.

“Let freedom reign. The Sun never set on so glorious a human achievement.” Nelson Mandela.


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