Detention, imprisonment and torture: The new life of the Al-Khawajas

When Maryam Al-Khawaja announced her trip to visit Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja in Bahrain last week, following the recommencement of his hunger strike, all seemed well. The trip was to simply see how her father was faring.

Yet her assessment of his condition never came. In the morning of 30 August, Maryam posted a series of tweets on Twitter outlining how she was immediately detained on arrival with security forces claiming she is “not a Bahraini citizen”:

“I’m denied entry. I’m starting a water-only hunger strike. I won’t voluntarily leave. My only demand is to be let into my country.”

Human rights defender Maryam al-Khawaja spoke to us about the often unseen torture in Bahrain: http://wp.me/p1FGNE-rJ

Human rights defender Maryam al-Khawaja spoke to us about the often unseen torture in Bahrain: http://wp.me/p1FGNE-rJ

Since then Maryam has been posting regular updates on her situation, from her declaration of beginning a water-only hunger strike and the snippets of conversations she hears from guards who wish to deport her.

Now, five days after her detention, her Twitter account has changed. A third-party is writing the tweets for her; news is sparse; and the condition of her father, Abdulhadi, must be deteriorating.

Ill-treatment, arbitrary arrests and torture are no distant themes to Maryam, her family and her friends. Maryam and her colleagues – and those associated to those colleagues – have been continual targets for their role in supporting human rights in Bahrain through the criminalised Bahrain Center for Human Rights (BCHR).

A long friend of the IRCT, Maryam has spoken in the past about the appalling human rights record of Bahrain, what the international community needs to do to recognise the abuses and the situation facing her family and friends on a daily basis.

The year 2011 marked the beginning of the now well-documented struggle for the Al-Khawajas. Following several years of banning from the Bahrain state, head of the BCHR Nabeel Rajab (himself only recently released from prison for his role in the centre) and Maryam began travelling the world to speak out about the situation in Bahrain, the vicious crackdowns on protestors and the torture which exists in the Bahrain prison network. It is a story Maryam knows all too well – her father, on hunger strike now, was arrested in April 2011 and sentenced to life imprisonment.

Maryam’s sister Zainab was then targeted and has been subjected to repeated arrest, long-term detention, harassment, and physical abuse, including facing ongoing charges in relation to calling for her father’s freedom. Zainab was released on bail in February 2014, after almost a year’s detention on the oft-cited charges of “insulting the King”, a charge which can lead to seven years imprisonment. Now seven months pregnant, Zainab faces trial again in October. If sentenced she could ultimately give birth inside prison.

Next on the arrest list was Maryam’s long-term friend and colleague Nabeel Rajab. In April 2012, amidst protests to cancel the Bahrain Formula One Grand Prix, Nabeel was arrested and sentenced to prison for having “insulted” Bahraini authorities via Twitter – a landmark ruling at the time as social media dissent had not been punished quite so harshly.

Thankfully Nabeel was released in May 2014, but his experience inside was harrowing. He was beaten, interrogated, left in solitary confinement with a dead animal and stripped naked on many occasions.

It is this prevalent treatment which worries human rights organisations now. Maryam’s father has already undergone major surgery in the past to treat the torture he received in Bahraini jail. And as Maryam told World Without Torture last year, her sister has been a victim of continued harassment, threats and beatings during her time in jail also.

Right now, according to BCHR, Maryam is facing “charges of assault and battery against on-duty public employees during their performance of official duty,” alleging Maryam attacked a lieutenant and another policewoman and injured them when they asked her to hand over her mobile phone at the airport.

Her lawyer has been denied access to her, as have her family. She has been moved to the Isa Town women prison and placed with two convicted criminals.

There is a high degree of urgency in assuring the safety of Ms Al-Khawaja, particularly considering the abuse which her family has suffered in the past.

Maryam’s release must come now. The world is watching.

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