Activist Plans to Risk Prison for Father Jailed in Bahrain

Maryam al-Khawaja says government's promise of prison reform is a ruse timed to US visit
By Arden Dier,  Newser Staff
Posted Sep 14, 2023 4:55 PM CDT
Activist Plans to Risk Prison for Father Jailed in Bahrain
Human rights activist Maryam al-Khawaja flashes the victory sign outside a police station in Muharraq, Bahrain, on Sept. 18, 2014.   (AP Photo/Hasan Jamali, File)

In early August, more than 800 prisoners launched Bahrain's largest-ever hunger strike, demanding access to life-saving medical care and other improved conditions in the country's largest prison. That strike was paused Monday—two days before Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa's scheduled visit to Washington—as Bahrain's government promised meaningful change. Yet it took officials less than a day to renege on that promise, human rights activist Maryam al-Khawaja, the daughter of one of Bahrain's most prominent political prisoners, tells NPR. She claims the US ally's promise of reform is disingenuous and only meant to shield Al Khalifa, who is also Bahrain's prime minister, from "negative backlash and negative media attention during his trip."

Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, a 62-year-old Danish-Bahraini citizen and 2013 Nobel Peace Prize nominee along with his two daughters, was convicted of terrorism in 2011 as a pro-democracy protest leader and sentenced to life in prison. He suffers from a heart condition and glaucoma but has been denied access to medication and doctors, Maryam claims. Following the government's announcement, Abdulhadi was scheduled to visit an eye doctor on Wednesday, but prison officials "refused to take him to his appointment," prompting Abdulhadi to go back on hunger strike, Maryam tells NPR. Bahrain's prison authority denied Abdulhadi was refused medical care, claiming his health is "stable with no serious concerns," per the AP.

But Maryam, who lives in Denmark, is so concerned that she plans to risk life in prison in traveling to Bahrain to plead for her father's release. She's already been sentenced to a year in a Bahraini prison—she was convicted in absentia for assaulting police on her last visit in 2014, a charge she denies, per AFP—and has another four cases pending, she tells NPR. But "saving my father is more important than my fear." She adds her trip wouldn't be necessary if the US government went "beyond just lip service around the importance of human rights" and pressured Bahrain into concrete change. There was no mention of the country's prisoners as Al Khalifa met with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken Wednesday to sign a security agreement. The Washington Post has more on the deal. (More Bahrain stories.)

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