Joint Side Event at HRC53 – The #FreeAlKhawaja Case: How regimes aim to silence HRDs through long-term detention

3 July 2023 – Today, as part of the 53rd session of the United Nations (UN) Human Rights Council (HRC) in Geneva, Switzerland, Americans for Democracy & Human Rights in Bahrain (ADHRB) held a joint side event with the Gulf Centre for Human Rights (GCHR), the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) and the Al Salam Foundation, to highlight how regimes aim to silence human rights defenders through long-term detentions. This event focused mainly on this pattern in Bahrain, with the striking example of AbdulHadi al-Khawaja. Michael Khambatta, the GCHR representative in Geneva, moderated the discussion. Maryam al-Khawaja, AbdulHadi al-Khawaja’s daughter, human rights consultant, and director of the Free Al-Khawaja campaign, gave remarks together with Ms. Birgit Kainz-Labbe, coordinator of the Civic Space Unit at the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR).

Michael Khambatta, Geneva representative for the Gulf Center for Human Rights, opened the panel by introducing the topic of the side event and the speakers mentioned above.

Birgit Kainz-Labbe, the officer coordinating the Civic Space Unit for the OHCHR, started the presentation by discussing the general circumstances of human rights defenders in detention. She reiterated that the High Commissioner has made this topic central and has called for the release of those detained for exercising their rights, especially the freedom of expression. She emphasized the need to build on the idea that human dignity is at the center by stating that “every human is equal in dignity and rights.” She then stressed that for the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) to become a reality, it needs people, people who speak up, people who hold debates, and voices that shed light on things that are not going well in society. Ms. Kainz-Labbe explained the need for collective efforts to get people released from all types of detention, such as short-term (with the ultimate goal of intimidation) and long-term detention (life imprisonment), which isolates those who are directly affected by it and has a direct effect on society. She reinforced this with powerful words, “Free the loved ones” – looking at Ms. al-Khawaja and referring to her father, AbdulHadi al-Khawaja. She continued by pledging to ask for an honest assessment of how the structure of counter-terrorism and the overall concept has affected civil society and how we can address its harmful effects.

Indeed, we need to include civil society more in the conversation, in legislation, projects, etc., to ensure they can have input. Ms. Kainz-Labbe concluded by highlighting her hopes for this year, which could represent the opportunity to reflect on what else can be done to make sure these long-term detainees are not forgotten.

Maryam al-Khawaja, directing the Free Al-Khawaja Campaign, spoke directly on her father: AbdulHadi al-Khawaja’s case. She reminded us that when we talk about human rights defenders, especially in Bahrain, her father is no exception – he’s the rule. This counts for all around the world, and not just in the Middle East. He is the rule in how human rights defenders are treated. She emphasized that almost everything that can be done has been done in her father’s case. Indeed, joint statements, allegation letters, communications from the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, and statements made by the High Commissioners have been realized. In addition, governments, such as the Danish Permanent Mission, have gotten involved in the case of AbdulHadi al-Khawaja. Al-Khawaja has won awards for the work he’s done. In addition, he has an EU (Danish) passport, has received international attention, and is well known. The idea that he was arrested, violently tortured, and remains in prison 12 years later is deeply shocking.

As a result, Ms. al-Khawaja sadly stated that if her father, AbdulHadi al-Khawaja, cannot be freed, despite how well-known his case is and everything that has been done for him, how can other human rights defenders receiving less attention be freed? Ms. al-Khawaja argued that if the EU cannot even get their citizens out after 12 years (referencing the case of her father and a Swedish citizen also imprisoned in Bahrain) or does not bring up these cases, nothing can be done. Raising the instances of these individuals is the bare minimum, and the issue must be brought up in every session of the Human Rights Council, as human rights defenders are “the best of us, and they must be protected.”

She then continued by reading an extract from a BICI report in which her father’s case is discussed to demonstrate what he has been through after being in prison for so long. The Bahraini government hopes that people will forget so that it becomes an old story. Therefore, it is essential to remind us of what is happening to human rights defenders and continue pledging attention. She also read this extract to raise awareness of the hundreds of human rights defenders worldwide who are subjected to these practices or much worse.

“The problem is not only torture,” she said. After this, detainees are denied medical treatment as a systemic way of punishing them again after torture. Indeed, her father was denied 8 or 9 times from being able to see a cardiologist with proper equipment to be able to assess him properly. This is a pattern. Prisoners of conscience in Bahrain are denied access to adequate medical treatment. It is another form of torture, not just for her father but also for his family.

Ms. al-Khawaja asked again, “What else can be done?” She emphasized that all steps that could be taken in the international arena had been taken – with some progress being achieved. Indeed, she gave the example of the annual report of the OHCHR on reprisals for cooperation with the UN. However, despite this, Ms. al-Khawaja stressed that accountability is still lacking. The report does not affect the ability of states to become members of the Council.

The floor then opened up to questions discussing subject matters such as counter-terrorism laws, medical negligence, revocation of citizenship, collective punishment, and the flaws of the UN system.