On April 9, 2011, 15 masked, armed men raided the residence of famous Bahraini human rights activist and Danish national Abdulhadi al-Khawaja. Al-Khawaja was beaten and detained by the masked guys. Two months later, a Bahraini court condemned him to life in jail for participating in nonviolent rallies during Bahrain’s pro-democracy movement in February 2011.
Human Rights Watch said that the Danish government must exert substantial public pressure on Al-Khawaja to obtain his release eventually. At age 60, his health is deteriorating due to the tremendous physical, sexual, and psychological torment he has undergone while in jail and the terrible lack of medical care offered by prison officials.
More than a decade ago, governments such as Denmark depended on private diplomacy with the Bahraini administration to gain his release. The long-term unlawful detention of Al-Khawaja is conclusive evidence that this private approach has failed, and a new strategy must be devised. In public declarations, demarches, and in all dealings with Bahraini authorities, the Danish government should emphasise the urgency of al-case. Khawaja’s These efforts must continue until he is reunited with his family at home.
Abdulhadi al-Khawaja is an internationally renowned and award-winning advocate for human rights. He co-founded the Gulf Centre for Human Rights (GCHR) and the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights (BCHR), the latter of which he served as president. Al-Khawaja was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2013 by a member of the European Parliament for his involvement in urging the Bahraini government to respect human rights and promote nonviolent political transformation.
The time for robust and public action to secure his release is now. The Danish government should seize the fleeting momentum that recent developments have created. First, parliamentary elections in Bahrain are scheduled for this upcoming November, and the Bahraini government will be acutely sensitive about the country’s image internationally, especially given the track record of Bahrain’s 2018 elections, which were not fair and irreparably tarnished by state repression. Bahrain will likely try again to create an illusion of respect for human rights and dress up these upcoming parliamentary elections as free and fair. If Bahraini authorities wanted to make a genuine effort, they should start by releasing al-Khawaja and the many other rights defenders and dissidents still unfairly locked away in prison.
The current prime minister of Bahrain, Prince Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa, has claimed he is open to reform. Al-Khalifa became prime minister in November 2020, after the previous prime minister, Sheikh Khalifa bin Salman al-Khalifa, died while in office after holding the position for more than 50 years. Releasing al-Khawaja also represents an important litmus test of the new prime minister’s commitment to genuine reform.
Public pressure from the Danish government is absolutely essential, particularly during this brief period of opportunity. Bahrain has bowed to public pressure in the past, when prominent human rights defenders like Nabeel Rajab and Zainab al-Khawaja were released after public statements and pressure, which were bolstered by private diplomacy.
Public pressure from the Danish government nearly secured al-Khawaja’s release in 2012, and the unique circumstances of the current moment will not soon present themselves again.
The Danish government should be applauded for its foreign and development policies, which aim to improve democracy and human rights globally, particularly the emphasis on civic space. Publicly advocating for Al-Khawaja’s release is another way to demonstrate continued support for these important priorities.
Other governments, particularly the United States and the United Kingdom who strongly influence Bahrain, must also be encouraged by the Danish government to demand al-Khawaja’s release.
It is possible to ensure his release through the right combination of public and private pressure. 11 years in prison are 11 years too many. The Danish government shouldn’t need another decade to see that private pressure has failed.