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Abdulhadi al-Khawaja
Abdulhadi Alkhawaja.jpg
Abdulhadi al-Khawaja taking part in a pro-democracy protest in February 2011
Abdulhadi Abdulla Hubail al-Khawaja

(1961-04-05) 5 April 1961 (age 63)
Nationality Denmark Danish and Bahrain Bahraini
Occupation Human rights defender
Years active 1979–present
Criminal charge(s) organizing and managing a terrorist organization, attempt to overthrow the government by force and in liaison with a terrorist organization working for a foreign country and the collection of money for a terrorist group
Spouse(s) Khadija Almousawi
Children Maryam and Zainab 2 other daughters

Abdulhadi Abdulla Hubail al-Khawaja (Arabic: عبد الهادي عبد الله حبيل الخواجة, romanized: ʻAbd al-Hādī ʻAbd Allāh Ḥubayl al-Khawājah; born 5 April 1961) is a Bahraini political activist. On 22 June 2011, al-Khawaja and eight others were sentenced to life imprisonment following the suppression of pro-democracy protests against the Bahraini government. al-Khawaja has previously gone on a series of hunger strikes while serving his life sentence, in protest of the political conditions in Bahrain.

He is former president and co-founder of the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights (BCHR), a nonprofit non-governmental organization which works to promote human rights in Bahrain. He has held a number of positions and played various roles in regional and international human rights organizations.

On 9 April 2011, al-Khawaja was arrested and tried as part of a campaign of repression by the Bahraini authorities following pro-democracy protests in the Bahraini uprising. Front Line Defenders expressed fear for his life following allegations of torture and ... in detention. al-Khawaja was sentenced on 22 June 2011, along with eight other activists, to life imprisonment. On 8 February 2012, he started an open-ended hunger strike until "freedom or death", protesting continuing detentions in Bahrain. The strike lasted for 110 days, and resulted in his being force-fed by authorities.

Until February 2011, al-Khawaja was the Middle East and North Africa Protection Coordinator with Front Line Defenders – the International Foundation for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders. He is also a member of the International Advisory Network in the Business and Human Rights Resource Center chaired by Mary Robinson, former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.

Al-Khawaja is a member of the advisory board of the Damascus Center for Human Rights Studies and also an expert adviser for and member of the coordinating committee of The Arab Group for Monitoring Media Performance monitoring the media in Bahrain and six other Arab countries. Al-Khawaja was part of Amnesty International's fact-finding mission in Iraq, and has been a researcher and project consultant for Amnesty and other international organizations. His human rights campaigning activities have been acknowledged by the International Conference of Human Rights Defenders in Dublin, and he was named by the Arab Program for Human Rights Defenders as its Regional Activist of 2005.

Early life

After finishing high school in Bahrain in 1977, al-Khawaja traveled to the UK to continue his further education. In 1979, he took part in student activities in London in reaction to demonstrations and arrests in Bahrain. Many students abroad, including al-Khawaja, were denied renewal of their passports and asked to return home. In the summer of 1980, after fellow students had been detained and interrogated under torture for their activities in London and his family's house had been ransacked and searched, al-Khawaja, fearing detention if he went back to Bahrain, decided to remain abroad.

Civil and human rights activism in exile

In 1981, the Bahraini government staged a crackdown on opponents, claiming to have uncovered a coup attempt by the Islamic Front for the Liberation of Bahrain. Hundreds of civilians, mostly students, including minors, were detained and tortured. Seventy-three detainees were tried by the State Security Court (now abolished) on charges of membership of an illegal organization and attempting to use violence and given sentences of 7–25 years imprisonment.

In 1991, al-Khawaja was granted political asylum in Denmark. Following his resignation from the CDPPB in 1992, he and other Bahrainis living in exile in the Scandinavian countries and the UK founded the Bahrain Human Rights Organization (BHRO), based in Denmark.

During the period 1992–2001 BHRO gained respect for persistent, professional, and non-partisan activities at international level which contributed to the political changes that took place in Bahrain when the new ruler came to power in 1999. Al-Khawaja became head of the BHRO, prior to returning to Bahrain in 2001 following a general amnesty.

Civil and human rights activism in Bahrain

Return to Bahrain

After 12 years in exile, Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja returned to Bahrain in 1999 following wide-ranging political reforms by the Bahraini government that allowed independent human rights groups to operate in Bahrain. Al-Khawaja became one of the main founders and director of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights (BCHR), which was officially registered in June 2002.

Al-Khawaja was also one of the founders of the Bahrain Unemployment Committee, described as sharing a "similar confrontational strategy" with the center. Many of the committee's members are involved in the centre or the Haq Movement, including Abdulwahab Hussain.

Since his return, al-Khawaja has been subjected to detention, unfair trial, and physical assaults as a result of his human rights activities. Well-documented physical assaults against him in March 2002 and June/July/September 2005 were not investigated despite pledges by UN bodies and international NGOs.

First arrest

On 25 September 2004, the BCHR was closed down, and al-Khawaja was arrested, a day after publicly criticizing the prime minister and the Bahraini regime for corruption and human rights abuses, using language which "the authorities easily construed as incitement of hatred". Throughout the two months that he spent in prison while on trial, his supporters held widespread protests, both inside Bahrain and abroad. On the morning of 21 November, the court sentenced al-Khawaja to one year in prison, but later in the day it was announced that he had been given a Royal Pardon by the King and was released. The BCHR is still banned by the government, but has remained very active.

Unemployment protest crackdown

On 15 July 2005, police sought to prevent a peaceful demonstration by the Committee for the Unemployed against the government's management of the unemployment situation and the state budget for 2005–2006. The authorities had reportedly been informed about the demonstration a week earlier. While protesters were still assembling, the security forces charged and violently dispersed the demonstration. A total of 32 people said to have required hospital treatment, including Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, Nabeel Rajab and labor rights activist Abbas al-'Umran.

Second arrest

On 2 February 2007, al-Khawaja was arrested again by the Bahraini authorities along with the Secretary General of the Bahraini Haq Movement pro-democracy organization Hassan Mushaima and a third activist, Shaker Abdul-Hussein. al-Khawaja was charged with offences including "promoting change to the political system through illegitimate means" and "an intention to change the governing system of the country, circulating false information, insulting the king and inciting hatred against the regime". The arrests were followed by public disturbances. Several hundred supporters who tried to hold a march in Jidhafs, on the outskirts of Manama, to demand the activists' release clashed with authorities. The Haq Movement spokesman Abdul-Jalil Al-Singace reported that Special Forces fired tear gas and rubber bullets at the demonstrators, who originated from several villages west of the capital. The demonstrators dispersed but later regrouped.

Police blocked roads around the area. Black smoke could be seen rising from the area. Witnesses said the demonstrators set tires and garbage containers on fire.

The Al-Wefaq Society, the largest grouping in the Bahraini Parliament with 17 out of 40 seats, called for an immediate session of the National Assembly, claiming that the arrests threatened the credibility of the reform process. Al-Wefaq chief Sheikh Ali Salman criticized the arrests in his Friday sermon and attacked the authorities for their use of indiscriminate force. After being held and interrogated for seven hours, al-Khawaja, Hassan Mushaima and Shaker Abdul-Hussein were released on bail. Mushaima and al-Khawaja said that they believed that their release on bail was a result of the protests and of the strong reaction from opposition groups including the Al-Wefaq society, the country's largest Shia opposition group. During a joint press conference with al-Khawaja, Mushaima said that Al-Wefaq's response had surprised the authorities and affirmed opposition solidarity.

Speech for Abdulhadi Alkhawaja in Manama on January 2009
Speech for Abdulhadi al-Khawaja in Manama in January 2009

Ashura speech

On 6 January 2009, al-Khawaja was invited to make a speech during Ashura day, which coincides with the annual gathering commemorating the martyrdom of Imam Hussain, the third historic Imam of Shia. During his speech, al-Khawaja referred openly to the graveness human rights violations in Bahrain including sectarian discrimination, corruption, plunder of public funds and land, arbitrary arrests, regular use of torture, unjust trials, denial of the rights of assembly and expression, and the prosecution of human rights defenders. He also called for peaceful resistance to abuses by the ruling regime and civil disobedience.

On 21 January, the office of the Attorney General ordered al-Khawaja's prosecution under articles 29(2), 160, 165, and 168(1) of the Penal Code. He was charged with "propaganda to overthrow or change the political system by force," "publicly instigating hatred and disrespect against the ruling regime," and "willfully broadcasting false and malicious news, statements or rumors and spreading provocative propaganda related to the internal affairs of the country that could disturb public security and cause damage to the public interest." On 9 February, he was not allowed to leave Bahrain for a visit to Iraq on behalf of Front Line.

Involvement in the Bahraini uprising

Nabeel Rajab (left), Ali Abdulemam (middle) and Abdulhadi Alkhawaja (right) in a pro-democracy march on 23 February
Abdulhadi al-Khawaja (right), Ali Abdulemam (middle) and Nabeel Rajab (left) in a pro-democracy march on 23 February

In the early days of the Arab Spring Revolutions of 2011, al-Khawaja led peaceful pro-democracy protests across the country and organized peaceful awareness-raising and human rights education activities for protesters.

In the period following attacks by Bahraini troops on protesters on 14 February 2011, the government allowed the protesters to continue a "festival-like" event at the Pearl Roundabout where a variety of groups came and shared their views. The Crown Prince promised to start a dialogue with the opposition following a visit to Bahrain by Robert Gates, Defense Secretary of the United States, to discuss the situation.

After protesters entered the Financial Harbour, an area filled with financial exchanges and banks on 13 March 2011, the government began a violent crackdown in retaliation. A few days later, prominent opposition leader Hasan Mushaima and six other opposition activists were arrested.


On 9 April 2011, al-Khawaja was arrested. His daughter reported how up to 20 armed and masked policemen broke into their apartment in the middle of the night and attacked her father. They dragged him downstairs by the neck, leaving a trail of blood from injuries inflicted by five officers who refused to stop beating him despite his claims that he was unable to breathe. He was taken away unconscious. al-Khawaja's two sons-in-law were detained as well. Mohammed Al-Maskati, President of the Bahrain Youth Society for Human Rights (BYHRS), who had been monitoring human rights violations during the protests and was present in the house, was severely beaten during the raid but not arrested. al-Khawaja's daughter, Zainab, was assaulted when she attempted to intervene. The women present in the house were locked in a room and prevented from leaving. The family were not told where al-Khawaja had been taken, or what he was accused of.

Trial and imprisonment

Graffiti in Barbar 01
A graffiti in Barbar depicting al-Khawaja's face in the middle of Bahrain map

On 20 April 2011, Abdulhadi al-Khawaja was allowed to make a one-minute phone call to his wife. He informed her that he was supposed to appear before the Military Court at 8.00 a.m. on 21 April. Before this call, al-Khawaja's daughter had received a call from the military asking her to bring clothes for him. When his lawyers presented themselves before the Military Court, they were advised that the hearing was not going to take place that day. They were given no further information and were not allowed access to their client.

Eventually on 8 May 2011, al-Khawaja was put on trial by a military court with 20 other Bahrainis on charges of "organizing and managing a terrorist organization", "attempt to overthrow the Government by force and in liaison with a terrorist organization working for a foreign country" and the "collection of money for a terrorist group". The group, which included other noted Bahraini human rights campaigners including Hasan Mushaima and Abduljalil Alsingace, clerics and members of political opposition groups, were tried under emergency legislation introduced following the protest demonstrations in February and March. With the exception of one Sunni, Ibrahim Sharif, all were members of Bahrain's majority Shia community.

On 19 June, al-Khawaja wrote a letter (in Arabic) from prison about his health situation. (Read translated letter)

On 22 June 2011, al-Khawaja and eight others were sentenced to life imprisonment. Zainab al-Khawaja, who attended the trial, "tweeted" that after the sentence was read, her father raised his fist and shouted "We shall continue on the path of peaceful resistance!", before being bustled out of the court room. Al-Khawaja's appeal is due to be heard on 11 September, when it will take place before an ordinary criminal court, rather than a military court.

Hunger strike

For the first time in Bahrain, al-Khawaja started an open-ended hunger strike starting on 8 February 2012 until "freedom or death" protesting continuing detentions. As of 15 March, he had lost more than 14 kg, had problems talking and "could not stand up, even to perform his prayers," his daughter Maryam said. He was taken to hospital several times where doctors failed to administer him an IV line due to his veins' weak conditions, his family said. According to his wife, al-Khawaja spent most of his time lying down, needed hot water to keep his body's normal temperature, and became exhausted after 10–15 minutes of exposure to sunlight. As his health conditions kept declining, al-Khawaja refused medical examinations and threatened to stop drinking water. His deteriorating condition was confirmed by Danish diplomats who have made several visits to the prison he's held in. "Abdulhadi thinks there is no legal reason to keep him in jail," said his lawyer, al-Jishi, who also filed a last chance appeal. "He won't stop until they release him, or he will die inside," he added.

The government refused access to independent activists to examine him, stating that al-Khawaja's condition was stable and medical care was being provided. It also said he was not on a real hunger strike, because he was taking glucose and "other liquids".

Beginning on 20 April, al-Khawaja refused all fluids, including water and intravenous saline. He asked to see his lawyer to write a will, but was denied access for the fourth week. So he begged his wife to pass on three things: that he was completely convinced as to the rightness of his action and, could he go back, would choose the same path again; his appeal that no one attempt a similar strike to the death; and finally, "If I die, in the next 24 hrs, I ask the people to continue on the path of peaceful resistance... I don't want anybody to be hurt in my name." On 25 April (his 77th day of hunger strike), his wife learned he had disappeared from his hospital bed. Both the Ministry of Interior and the Bahrain Defense Force hospital refused information as to his whereabouts or treatment. On 29 April, it emerged that he had been ..., tied to a bed, and forcibly fed with a nasoenteric tube. al-Khawaja considered the force feeding and the solitary confinement to be torture; he gave the doctor's name as Dr Ebrahim Zuwayed, declared he will hold him, the hospital and the Ministry of Interior responsible, and that he was continuing with his hunger strike.

On 28 May, al-Khawaja announced through his lawyer that he would end his hunger strike that evening, on the strike's 110th day.

On 16 November 2021, Al-Khawaja, started a hunger strike due to long and ongoing harassment by the prison authorities.

On 18 November 2021, he called his family to say his blood sugar level had dropped to a dangerously low level of 2.4.

See also

  • Bahrain Centre for Human Rights
  • Torture in Bahrain
  • Islamic Action Society
  • Bahrain Thirteen
  • Nabeel Rajab
  • Bobby Sands, of the 1981 Irish hunger strike
  • Hana Shalabi
  • Khader Adnan
  • Maikel Nabil Sanad
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