In April 2016, Bahraini Foreign Minister Sheikh Khaled bin Ahmed al-Khalifa announced his government would release prominent human rights activist Zainab al-Khawaja, who has been detained in Bahrain’s Isa Town Women’s prison for more than two months. Police arrested her after she had exhausted her appeals process fighting charges related solely to her free expression. The officers also detained Zainab’s son, Hadi, during her arrest. Hadi is under two years of age.
A month after FM Sheikh Khaled’s promise, Zainab and Hadi remained in prison. On 9 May, Bahrain’s Foreign Ministry again stated that the authorities would free Zainab and her son. This time, the Foreign Ministry also claimed that the government would release another female prisoner who has a four-year-old child with her in detention.
Yet, almost two weeks on from this second announcement, both sets of detainees remain in prison. The other mother, Arina Bajtova, has since stated she is going on a hunger strike. She claims she has been unable to obtain any information regarding her release more than a week after it was promised. It is unclear if and when Zainab, Arina, and their children will be released.
Bahraini authorities have stated that their promises to release Zainab and her child are based on “humanitarian” concerns, suggesting that here could be “negative repercussions that may affect [the children] from [being] in a place of punishment.” But in a letter Zainab wrote on 20 April that was smuggled out of prison, she writes, “If all I have achieved is to somehow save myself and my child, while the regime uses my case to come off as ‘humanitarian,’ then I have failed… I remembered the bodies I had seen of protesters killed. Where was the regime’s humanity when they shot a 13-year-old child?”
Bahraini authorities have long targeted children for their participation in the pro-democracy movement. Since 2011, the authorities have arrested more than 1,500 minors; reports indicate that police detained at least 237 children in just 2015. Prison officials have subjected these children to mental and physical abuse during their arrests and detentions. Bahraini authorities have killed at least 10 children.
Zainab writes, “If nothing changes for the people of Bahrain, then my staying in jail or release is not of great consequence.” Indeed, the release of Zainab and her infant would only represent a first step toward human rights reform within the country. But if the Bahraini government is truly concerned with preserving “humanity,” it must stop the systematic imprisonment of children and release all prisoners of conscience. The government must allow children to grow up without fear of arbitrary detention, and it must permit activists to express dissenting opinions free from retaliation and abuse. Fulfilling its own promise to release Zainab al-Khawaja and her son is a start.
**UPDATE: On 22 May, Zainab fell ill while in prison. She requested that her infant son, Hadi, be let out of prison to stay with family while Zainab recovered. Authorities denied Zainab’s request, and kept the child in prison even after the child’s father and grandfather traveled to the prison to ask authorities for his release. via Gulf Center for Human RIghts
Erin Sigmon in an Advocacy Fellow at ADHRB