Bahraini Sentenced To Life, Daughter Speaks Out

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In Bahrain, leading human rights advocate Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja has received a lifelong prison sentence, as the case with seven other prominent Shiite activists. Guest host Tony Cox speaks with Maryam Al-Khawaja about her father's case and her family's history of opposition to the Bahraini government.

TONY COX, host: I'm Tony Cox. This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Michel Martin is away.

Coming up, a migratory trend that began a century ago was suddenly reversing as African-Americans move back to the South. We'll look at what's causing it and talk to a filmmaker whose documentary chronicles the shift in population. That's coming up later.

But first, we go to a case in Bahrain where eight prominent Shiite activists were recently sentenced to life in prison. In March following weeks of uprisings, the small Sunni-ruled island monarchy cracked down on protests. And hundreds were arrested, including leading human rights activist Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja. He was charged with participating in terrorism to overthrow the government and spying for a foreign country. When the sentence was read, he yelled out, we will continue our struggle.

His daughter Maryam is with us now. She works for the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, an organization her father helped found in 2002. She is on the phone with us from Europe. She preferred to leave her location undisclosed to protect her safety. Maryam, welcome to the program.

MARYAM AL-KHAWAJA: Thank you, I'm glad to be with you.

COX: Last week your father, along with seven others, was sentenced to life in prison. What is the current status of his case?

AL-KHAWAJA: Well, the appeal hearing will be actually tomorrow. It was supposed to be on the 6th of July, but apparently they want to make it a little more speedy. So, they made it — they set it up to be tomorrow.

COX: Who else from your family has been detained and what is their status? And also, tell us what this has done to your family as a whole.

AL-KHAWAJA: Well, my two brothers-in-law were arrested along with my father for merely being his sons in law. Since they were arrested they have not had any charges filed against them. They were never taken to any hearings. They're basically just being kept in prison. My uncle, my father's younger brother, was also arrested and he was actually in the same case, but he received a five-year sentence, whereas my father received a life sentence.

Of course, it is very, very difficult for our family. Given that we have so many family members in prison today. But also, we always remind ourselves that there are hundreds of other families who are going through the exact same thing that we're going through.

COX: Do you consider yourself to be on the run?

AL-KHAWAJA: No, I'm not on the run. I actually was thinking at some point of returning to Bahrain, but I think that my work internationally right now is a lot more important than sitting in a prison given that there aren't many voices out there right now, especially given what the government is trying to do. And I don't think people will speak about the human rights violations in Bahrain.

So, there aren't many voices left internationally speaking about what's going on in Bahrain or reporting on it. So, my job I think right now is essential and when I feel that that job is no longer necessary, then I will go back to Bahrain despite the consequences and dangers.

COX: You have been sharply criticized by the Bahraini government, which threatened to sue you and which also accused you of spreading false information such as claims that they attribute to you that the government would not allow you to return home. My question is, did they sue you and what do you think would happen if you did return?

AL-KHAWAJA: Of course, there has been no lawsuit, because it has no basis. But the government basically tries to ruin anyone's credibility who speaks out against the government in Bahrain and they have been using defamation campaigns as a tool for as long as I can remember to try and stop people from speaking out about human rights violations in Bahrain.

I do think that if I do go back to Bahrain, then I'm almost sure that I will be arrested or disappeared, if not worse. So, there's definitely a high risk in regards to my safety in returning to the country.

COX: Here's my final question. During President Obama's policy speech on the Middle East, he stated that a dialogue cannot happen in Bahrain when most of the opposition is in prison. And, of course, Bahrain is a key ally of the United States in the Middle East. The Navy's 5th Fleet is based there. What would you want the Obama administration to do when it comes to your country?

AL-KHAWAJA: I think that there is much that can be done. First of all, a ban on arms — publicly announcing that there will be a ban on arms to Bahrain and the other countries who are sending in troops to quell these march protests. The second thing is very publicly taking a very strong stand against the human rights violations taking place, cutting off of diplomatic ties.

I think all of these are things that are very essential and could make a very big difference not only in government policy, but also on the ground in regards to how people feel and their spirits, especially now when the people of Bahrain feel like they have pretty much been abandoned by the international community.

COX: Maryam Al-Khawaja is the daughter of the prominent Bahraini human rights activist Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja. Her father helped organize protests during this last spring's uprising in Bahrain. He was recently sentenced to life in prison. She joined us on the phone from an undisclosed location in Europe. Maryam, thank you.

AL-KHAWAJA: Thank you.

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