Rights groups condemn the arrest of Zainab al-Khawaja and U.S. inaction, while State Dept. refuses to say anything
Prominent human rights activist Zainab al-Khawaja was imprisoned this week for ripping up a photo of the king of Bahrain, a close ally of the U.S.
Despite constant questioning by the press, the U.S. State Department has refused to speak substantively about the politically motivated arrest.
In October 2015, Bahrain’s monarchy sentenced al-Khawaja to a year in prison and heavily fined her for ripping up the photo. She had originally faced a sentence of three years, but, after an appeal, it was reduced to one.
Amnesty International condemned the Bahraini regime for the punishment. Deputy Director for the Middle East and North Africa James Lynch said the court’s decision was “a vindictive assault on freedom of expression and offers yet another example of the Bahraini authorities’ use of oppressive tactics to silence peaceful activists.”
This is not the only charge the human rights activist bears, however. Al-Khawaja faces a slew of charges, which international rights groups say is because of her political work. In the past four years, she has been arrested and detain several times.
In 2013, Zainab went on hunger strike in protest of her imprisonment for “insulting a public employee.” She came close to death. The international community slammed the Bahraini regime for the repression. She had also gone on hunger strike in 2011 to protest her father’s imprisonment.
She was last incarcerated in 2014. During this imprisonment, Zainab was pregnant, and was released in November 2014, just four days before she gave birth to her son.
Al-Khawaja currently faces sentences of a total of three years and one month in prison in five different cases, for multiple charges related to ripping up the photo of the king, for allegedly insulting police officers and for entering a restricted area.
Her father, Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, himself a renowned human rights activist and a co-founder of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, was sentenced to life in prison for helping lead peaceful pro-democracy protests in 2011, which were crushed when Saudi Arabia and the UAE sent in more than 1,500 soldiers, with U.S. support.
Salon spoke with Maryam al-Khawaja, the sister of Zainab and the daughter of Abdulhadi. Maryam has established herself as a prominent human rights advocate, and, like the rest of her family, has been imprisoned for her work.
Maryam serves as the acting president of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights. The former head, fellow rights activist Nabeel Rajab, was also thrown in prison in Bahrain, where he remains. In recent days, Maryam and the non-profit organization the Gulf Center for Human Rights have been closely keeping track of the details of Zainab’s arrest.
On March 14, police showed up at Zainab al-Khawaja’s house, looking for her. She was not there, so they searched her house.
Police subsequently went to the apartment where al-Khawaja was staying, and blocked the entire street with more than a dozen riot police jeeps. They had a warrant for her arrest, and detained her. She brought her 1-year-old child Abdulhadi with her.
Authorities held al-Khawaja at a police station for several hours. She was not given food, and asked several times if she could buy some for her infant, but was not permitted to do so.
Al-Khawaja was arrested at around 3:45 pm Bahrain time. At 9 pm, she was transferred to a clinic for a checkup. There, she again asked for food for Abdulhadi, but was denied. It was only when al-Khawaja walked by a vending machine that she was able to buy her son a chocolate bar.
At midnight, she was transferred to a detention facility, where she was able to give Abdulhadi a cupcake, but still not a meal.
“They were refusing to give her food,” Maryam recalled.
The next morning, al-Khawaja was taken to the prison. Police officers refused to help her carry the three bags she had with the materials she needed for her child, watching her as she struggled alternating between carrying Abdulhadi and the heavy bags.
Because of the stress on her back from the bags and her son, along with the trauma of the arrest, al-Khawaja began suffering from muscle spasms. On March 17, she was taken to the hospital. There she was given a back brace, which she has to wear at all times, while taking care of Abdulhadi.
Maryam said “the treatment is very bad” in the prison.
The Gulf Center for Human Rights reports that 14 women in the prison area where al-Khawaja is detained have contracted Hepatitis C.
“We are very worried, not just because of the Hepatitis C, but also because of the conditions inside the prison,” Maryam added.
Al-Khawaja’s family was briefly permitted to see her, for about a half an hour, but, otherwise, she has had little outside contact.
The human rights activist faces three cases related to the ripping of the photo of the king. Two of her charges resulted in two-month sentences each; the third led to a one-year sentence.