Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja is a Danish-Bahraini political activist who has given decades of his life to defending human rights and promoting democracy. Despite the peaceful nature of his activism, he had been forced to live in exile for many years and was subjected to several arrests after finally returning to his home country. In 2011, he was sentenced to life in prison for leading non-violent protests during the Bahraini Uprising. His health is rapidly deteriorating, but Mr. Al-Khawaja is denied a medical furlough, and his family lives in constant fear of losing him. This article would not have been written without their help, for which Aurora is very grateful.
The Kingdom of Bahrain is currently ruled by the Al Khalifa dynasty, which has been in power since the late 18th century. Following a very brief period of attempts at democratization after the country gained its independence from the United Kingdom in 1971, the Al Khalifa family dissolved the national legislative assembly, suspended the 1973 Constitution through emergency laws, and began a violent crackdown on all forms of dissent. Today, independent media and opposition political parties are outlawed and voicing any kind of criticism towards the authorities is seen as a crime equivalent to terrorism.
As a young man studying in the United Kingdom in the late 1970s, Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja participated in the students’ protests aimed at raising awareness of the human rights violations in Bahrain. That defiance did not go unnoticed, and young Bahrainis like him were told to return home immediately – or be prepared to have their passports canceled. Having heard numerous stories about his friends being subjected to imprisonment after coming back, Mr. Al-Khawaja decided to stay in Europe and continue his work there. As a result, his Bahraini citizenship was revoked by the state.
The activist found shelter in refugee camps and was granted political asylum in Denmark in 1991, together with his wife and children. Two years later, after the death of his father, Mr. Al-Khawaja attempted to go to Bahrain to attend the funeral. He was denied entry and interrogated for several days before being deported back to Denmark. However, even this tragic episode did not discourage him.
While living in Europe, he became a key person for many refugees from the Gulf region seeking justice and support in their struggles. To fulfill the growing need for a structured response, he co-founded the Bahrain Human Rights Organization (BHRO) based in Denmark. Mr. Al-Khawaja’s tireless advocacy and persistence have directly contributed to the political changes that happened after Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa succeeded his late father as the new King of Bahrain.
In 2001, the new monarch tried to redeem the regime’s global image by offering general amnesty to dissidents and political prisoners. Dozens of Bahraini nationals living in forced exile, including Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja, were allowed to go back. This positive development, along with other promises made by the authorities, including reinstating some amended parts of the suspended constitution and implementing further democratic reforms, convinced Mr. Al-Khawaja and other activists that their dreams of a democratic future might just come true. In 2002, he opened the Bahrain Center for Human Rights (BCHR) to promote fundamental human rights.
According to those who know him, Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja would stand up for anyone. It wouldn’t matter who they were, what religion they were, and if they were Bahraini or not. “At some point, I was working with him on migrant workers’ rights at the BCHR. Some Bahrainis would say, ‘They are taking our jobs, and we have nothing. We should be the priority.’ And my dad was like, ‘No. It’s called ‘human rights.’ It’s not ‘Bahrainis’’ rights,’” recalls his daughter Zaynab Al-Khawaja, who is a human rights activist, too.
It soon became clear, though, that even the most cautious opposition had greatly overestimated the intent of the government to fulfill their democratic commitments. In September 2004, after Mr. Al-Khawaja publicly blamed the prime minister for his decisions negatively affecting the country’s economic development and his role in human rights abuses, the activist was detained and charged with disseminating ‘false news’ and inciting contempt towards the government. The BCHR was ordered to close down and its registration with the state was revoked. Defiantly, the Center remains in operation to this day.
Upon his release on a royal pardon in October 2004, Mr. Al-Khawaja continued to publicly criticize the monarchical regime for violating human rights, impeding the democratic process, and inciting discrimination against the Sunni minority. “If people move to gain their rights, to protect their rights, and the government has some kind of reaction, it’s not the people’s fault. It’s the government’s fault,” said Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja in an interview given in 2005.
In 2011, Mr. Al-Khawaja co-founded the Gulf Center for Human Rights, which provides support and protection to human rights defenders. As a result of his work, he has faced unjust detention, unfair trials, harassment, defamation campaigns in the media, and physical violence. In fact, all of the Al-Khawaja family members have been affected by state-sanctioned persecution.
Abdulhadi’s younger brother, two sons-in-law, two daughters, and even his young grandson have been imprisoned at some point (as a minor, the latter was briefly detained with his mother, Zaynab). Abdulhadi’s elderly mother, who still lives in Bahrain, hasn’t seen him for years. “This is something the Bahraini government does. They target families. You literally have one person at the dinner table on some days, because everybody else is exiled or in prison,” explains Zaynab Al-Khawaja.
In February 2011, during what became known as the ‘Arab Spring’ uprisings, Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja was in charge of leading several peaceful demonstrations and marches in Bahrain that reflected the public demand for democratic reforms across the Middle East/North Africa (MENA) region. The state retaliation was swift and brutal. In April 2011, Mr. Al-Khawaja was violently apprehended in his own home in the middle of the night, while his family watched in horror.
During the arrest, he was dragged down the stairs by the neck, beaten and then taken away unconscious. His family was not allowed to contact him for several days after that. In detention, he was repeatedly tortured and survived an assault attempt that resulted in requiring urgent medical attention. When the activist was taken to the hospital, he was threatened with execution by security personnel. Upon his return to prison, he was put in solitary confinement for two months.
In June 2011, Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja was sentenced to life in prison by a military tribunal for ‘founding a terrorist organization’ and an ‘attempt to overthrow the government by force.’ No convincing evidence was presented in court to validate those claims. After the verdict was read, he was again beaten by court officers for addressing his supporters in the room. Since then, he has remained imprisoned.
The activist has organized multiple hunger strikes to force the prison administration to respect the detainees’ rights. In January 2012, he began an open-ended hunger strike that lasted for 110 days, severely weakening him. When his wife Khadija al-Mousawi visited him in April 2012, he told her he was drugged and force-fed without consent.
His health has been deteriorating ever since he was arrested. There is a risk he might lose his eyesight; he has chronic back and jaw pain caused by the beatings and has also developed heart palpitations. “We’ve always been concerned about my dad’s health, but none of it compares to his recent heart issues. We’ve never been as scared as we are now,” says Zaynab Al-Khawaja. After in-person visits were replaced with calls, they were often canceled without a warning. On at least one occasion, instead of being allowed to talk to his family, the activist was taken to another room where police officers shouted insults at him for half an hour, while he kept trying to tell them he was unwell.
In early September 2023, after the latest hunger strike put additional strain on Mr. Al-Khawaja’s exhausted organism, his daughter Maryam Al-Khawaja, who has also followed in his footsteps as yet another human rights defender in the family, decided that she would try to go to Bahrain to save her father. It’s a great risk, since she had been arrested before and warned to stay away unless she wanted to go back to prison on made-up charges. “My father is being denied access to urgent and critical medical treatment. He has a heart condition, which means that a hunger strike puts him at further risk of a heart attack or a stroke at any time. I can no longer sit around and wait for that call that tells me that my father has died in prison,” said Maryam in a video message posted on Facebook on September 7, 2023. A week later, she was denied boarding on a Manama-bound flight in London, depriving her of what she described as probably her ‘last chance to see her dad.’
Sadly, it seems unlikely that the merciless vise of the Bahraini justice system will ever release its righteous victim, but Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja’s family will never give up on the fight. He would expect nothing less from them. “When a person goes through a lot, sometimes, you get sad or feel a little bit broken. To me, it’s really amazing how happy my father is. He finds joy in standing up for human rights and his beliefs. He always tells us, to this day, that it’s an honor for us to be given the chance to do this work that we’re doing. And that is the thing I would like the people around the world to know about him,” says Zaynab Al-Khawaja.
Even after spending over a decade in detention and being subjected to unimaginable abuse, Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja has not lost the spirit of compassion and humanity that drove him to the human rights movement in the first place. He also retained his boundless courage. “If I die, I ask the people to continue on path of peaceful resistance,” said Mr. Al-Khawaja on a rare occasion when he was permitted to contact the outside world. “I don't want anybody to be hurt in my name.”