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The Face of Human Rights Violations in Bahrain

Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja – imprisoned since April 2011
The decision of 47 countries to sign a statement on September 10th condemning human rights violations in Bahrain has a particular resonance for us working at Equitas.  For many, Bahrain is best known for its annual Formula 1 race.   But for me and my colleagues, we came to first know Bahrain through our connection to one of that country’s leading human rights defenders – Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja.  Abdulhadi was our guest and became our friend during the three weeks he spent as a participant in our annual International Human Rights Training Program in 2005.  He emerged as a leader within the small group of participants attending from the Middle East and North Africa that year and played a critical role afterwards in building a vibrant network of Equitas alumni spreading human rights education in the region.  I last saw him in 2008 when we were together in a regional meeting in Aqaba, Jordan and I remember the pleasure of being in his company and benefiting from his experience, wisdom and sense of humour. When the Arab Spring began to spread to Bahrain in 2011, I knew Abdulhadi would be in the forefront of efforts to advance democracy and human rights in his homeland.  Despite the non-violent nature of his actions, on April 9, 2011, masked men burst into the apartment of his daughter in Manama.  They beat Abdulhadi unconscious and took him into custody with two of his sons-in-law. He was held incommunicado for several weeks during which time the abuse continued. On June 22nd he was convicted by a military court and sentenced to life imprisonment after a trial which fell far short of international standards. In 2012, he launched a 110-day hunger strike to protest his conviction before he was eventually force-fed by the authorities. The hunger strike and international pressure helped to grant him an appeal, but regrettably the original verdict was upheld in September 2012. A committed activist, a husband, father and friend, Abdulhadi was aware of the risks of human rights activism in a kingdom like Bahrain, but he never gave up. He was forced to flee in 1991, but continued his work from exile from Denmark until returning to Bahrain in 2001.  Shortly after his participation in Equitas’ program he was arrested and tortured.  In 2005, international pressure including a global petition from our alumni network helped win his release.  Unfortunately, efforts by the international human rights community and many governments so far havenot been able to convince the Bahraini authorities to relent and release the many political prisoners like Abdulhadi detained since 2011. We have heard from his family that Abdulhadi is continuing his work as a human rights educator – teaching fellow inmates about human rights.  I am encouraged that his spirit remains strong despite attempts by the authorities to break his will.  I also know that the fact that he and the struggle for human rights in Bahrain are not forgotten will help to give him strength for the struggles that lie ahead.  Next time you hear about Bahrain, I hope you too will think about Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja. Ian Hamilton, Executive Director, Equitas

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