Maryam al-Khawaja, the Inconvenient Activist

The arrest of Bahraini human rights activist Maryam al-Khawaja marks a new low point for the country’s autocracy.


"They keep saying I’m not a citizen," tweeted human rights defender (and FP Global Thinker) Maryam al-Khawaja early on the morning of Aug. 30. A few hours earlier she had stepped off a plane in her home country of Bahrain, where she hoped to pay a visit to her ailing father, Abdulhadi al-Khawaja. He’s currently serving a life sentence in a Bahraini prison on trumped-up terrorism charges. His real offense: organizing peaceful protests during Bahrain’s Arab Spring uprising against the government. On Aug. 25 he started a hunger strike "in protest against the continuation of arbitrary arrest and detention" in Bahrain — his second since he began serving his prison sentence on June 22, 2011. All of which might help to explain why the authorities were waiting for Maryam as soon as she arrived. They immediately took her into custody. (And yes, Maryam al-Khawaja is indisputably a Bahraini citizen. Like her father, she also has a Danish passport.)

A few days before Maryam made her own attempt to enter Bahrain, her sister, Zainab al-Khawaja, who lives in Bahrain, was arrested and charged with "entering a restricted area" after demanding a chance to visit her father. So the whole situation offers a snapshot of the grim realities the Khawaja family faces on a daily basis in their call for dignity and justice in Bahrain.

For 12 hours after Maryam tweeted the news of her detention, her whereabouts were unknown to her family, lawyer, colleagues, and friends. It was the Danish consulate in Bahrain that finally notified her family that Maryam was being taken to the public prosecutor to face unknown charges. Once the hearing convened, Maryam, who was prevented from calling her lawyer, was informed that she faced three charges: insulting the king; participating in the "Wanted for Justice in Bahrain Campaign" of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights; and assaulting a policewoman. It was the latter charge that prompted the prosecutor to sentence her to seven days in detention in Isa Town Detention Center for Women pending an "investigation." (In reality, four Bahraini police officers tackled Maryam in an attempt to seize her phone.) Maryam has been forbidden any contact with her lawyer for the entire seven days, which the International Service for Human Rights has declared to be "in contravention of international human rights law."

Three years after the start of Bahrain’s February 14 Revolution, the country’s prisons are still filled with thousands of political prisoners. Maryam al-Khawaja is now among them. In her public appearances, Maryam has often described Bahrain’s revolution as the "inconvenient revolution" — a reference to the many powerful countries, including the United States, that stand behind the Bahraini regime. Her tireless work and activism — including, among other things, the article she and I co-authored for FP‘s Democracy Lab some time ago — can be seen as inconvenient to many regimes in the same sense. As a selfless human rights defender who has expressed her solidarity with other struggles for justice, dignity, and self-determination across the Middle East and North Africa region, ranging from the Western Sahara to Syria, Maryam has made herself an obstacle to many regimes. As a result, she has been banned from traveling to other countries in the Gulf; recently she was also denied entry to Egypt.

The last time Maryam attempted to return to Bahrain from self-imposed exile in Denmark was August 2013. After booking her flight and going through the online check-in process, she arrived at Copenhagen Airport only to be informed at the British Airways counter that she would not be allowed to board the flight due to a request from the Bahraini government. In January of the same year, Maryam had succeeded in making a 10-day visit to Bahrain with little or no hassle from the authorities.

Over the course of the past 21 months, then, Maryam has gone from voluntary exile to detention in the same prison that houses many of the prisoners she has lobbied for abroad. This suggests that the Bahraini government’s backlash against the 2011 protests is intensifying. During the same period the regime has introduced a number of measures intended to further marginalize its critics. In addition to its usual tactics for the violent suppression of protests, which have been strongly criticized by a number of international human rights organizations, the Bahraini regime has attempted to lay down a legal framework to justify its ongoing crackdown.

In July, the Bahraini regime introduced new amendments to the already vague and contested 2006 anti-terrorism law. The amendments grant the Ministry of Interior, in addition to the king, greater power in making decisions that allow officials to strip the citizenship of anyone the government deems to be a "terrorist" — language purposefully left open-ended in order to allow for the broadest possible application against dissent. The measure was supported by a royal decree that once again attests to the monarchy’s direct intervention in the kingdom’s legal affairs. The king’s action thus clearly contradicts Article 32 of the Bahraini constitution, which asserts the separation of powers among the legislative, executive, and judiciary. Both the United Nations human rights office and Human Rights Watch have issued statements condemning these amendments, which have already been used against a number of Bahrainis, leaving them stateless.

Bahrain’s deepening intransigence took on surprising form in July, when the regime decided to kick out U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Tom Malinowski. Bahraini officials were apparently upset by Malinowski’s willingness to meet with opposition leaders during his visit to the country. The United States is one of Bahrain’s most important allies, and officials in Washington are habitually loath to criticize the government in Manama, given that the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet has its headquarters there. But none of that appears to matter especially to Bahrain’s government these days — perhaps because the United States has gone on supplying it with billions of dollars worth of weapons regardless.

Meanwhile, Bahrain’s government continues its mistreatment of prisoners, as demonstrated by the constant stream of cases published on the Bahrain Center for Human Rights website. Some highlight the rampant human rights abuses committed against Bahrainis, including sentences of lifetime imprisonment imposed on two children and failure to provide proper medical treatment to a blind detainee. The Bahraini regime has also employed covert tactics in order to intimidate and silence dissidents, as in the case of dozens of Bahraini activists and lawyers who were targeted with malicious spyware supplied by companies from the United Kingdom and Germany.

When I traveled with Maryam al-Khawaja to my home country of Morocco in February 2013 — around the second anniversary of Morocco’s pro-democracy February 20 Movement — we were met with an extended questioning session at the customs booth in the airport, and were then followed by security agents throughout the duration of our stay. What makes Maryam inconvenient is that she is willing to speak up for the struggles of others as well as for her own. And just as she has stood up for so many, so we should for her.

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