The family of a jailed Bahrain activist says he has resumed a hunger strike NPR's Leila Fadel talks to Maryam al-Khawaja, who like her father, is a Bahraini human rights activist. He was put in prison 12 years ago for his role in pro-democracy protests. Where do things stand?

The family of a jailed Bahrain activist says he has resumed a hunger strike

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Maryam al-Khawaja's father, like her, is a Bahraini human rights activist. And 12 years ago, Abdulhadi al-Khawaja was put in prison for his role in pro-democracy protests. Those protests came in the midst of uprisings across the Middle East demanding reform or an end to autocratic rule. But in Bahrain, the demonstrations were suppressed, and al-Khawaja is among the most high-profile political prisoners in the kingdom. He, along with hundreds of other political prisoners, ended a weekslong hunger strike when government authorities agreed to improve how they are treated. Then yesterday, Bahrain signed a security and economic pact with the U.S., and that's when I caught up with Maryam al-Khawaja.

MARYAM AL-KHAWAJA: The charges against him were filed under the terrorism law. The terrorism law in Bahrain is so vaguely defined that even the work of a human rights defender can be considered terrorist activity. And he was charged with attempting to violently overthrow the government in Bahrain. But when you look at the breakdown of what the charges are actually based on, it's all based on issues related to freedom of speech and freedom of assembly.

FADEL: Do you know much about his current conditions in prison?

AL-KHAWAJA: I actually spoke to my father this morning...


AL-KHAWAJA: ...When he called me from prison to let me know that he has gone back on hunger strike. There has been a mass hunger strike - the largest, actually, mass hunger strike in Bahrain's history that began on the 7th of August. And one of the most important demands that political prisoners made was related to access to adequate medical treatment. My father has heart problems that started at the beginning of this year. And since then, despite three visits to the emergency room with heart arrhythmia, two of them being since the beginning of the hunger strike, despite that, my father has been consistently denied access to a cardiologist, and we were told by doctors that he is at risk of a heart attack or a stroke at any given time while he's in prison. And so I fear for his life at this time. The political prisoners - 804 of them, to be exact - who are on hunger strike decided to suspend the mass hunger strike yesterday.

FADEL: Yeah. I was going to ask you about that. So they decided to suspend it because there were promises made by the government to make some conditions better, right?

AL-KHAWAJA: Exactly. Unfortunately, it took just one day for them to already renege on those promises. This morning, my father had an appointment with his eye doctor. My father has a condition called glaucoma, which means that if it goes untreated, he's at risk of going blind. And so this morning, he was supposed to go see his eye doctor after having been denied that since the beginning of this year, and they refused to take him to his appointment. And so all it took was one day for the Bahraini government to show that they were not actually serious about these promises that were made. And so my father informed us that he is back on hunger strike now.

FADEL: How much do you think the promises made by the Bahraini government to the prisoners to end this hunger strike were about this visit that's happening this week?

AL-KHAWAJA: I think it has everything to do with the visit. I think that the crown prince is trying to avoid negative backlash and negative media attention during his trip. And so what is going to be incredibly critical in the coming days is to see whether the United States government presses the Bahraini government to do the right thing - to release all political prisoners, to release people like my father to Denmark, where he is a citizen, and to give them access to medical treatment as they need. The question is, is that, you know, even if we weren't talking from a human rights perspective, even if we were just talking basically about U.S. interests, what good is a unstable ally to the United States? And that's what Bahrain is right now.

FADEL: I want to ask you about that, because with the mass hunger strike came some very rare protests, which we don't see in a country that doesn't really allow for dissent. Why do you say it's unstable? I mean, I think a lot of people would look at the kingdom and say, oh, this is a stable Gulf nation.

AL-KHAWAJA: Well, I think anyone who follows anything beyond the statements of the government would know that Bahrain is unstable. When you look at Bahrain's economy, Bahrain's economy has not been doing well for a while now. Economic support from Saudi Arabia and the UAE has ended in the past years. And so the Bahrainis are currently struggling. And I think this is part of why the crown prince has gone on this massive PR campaign to try and present himself as very progressive and to land these kind of deals with the U.S. government. But I think, you know, all of this indicates that Bahrain right now is in a very precarious situation. It's a pressure cooker.

FADEL: Has the U.S given you any indication that they will use any type of pressure during these negotiations to try to have a different outcome for these political prisoners, including your father?

AL-KHAWAJA: Well, I think generally, you know, the messaging that we receive is that human rights is important to the U.S. government, that they do everything they can to make sure that human rights as part of the conversation. And so I would like to see it go beyond just lip service around the importance of human rights and to actual action and practice of change and pressuring the Bahraini government to do better on human rights.

FADEL: You're risking your own freedom by going to Bahrain.


FADEL: In 2014, you went, you were arrested. It took international pressure for you to be released. Why are you taking this risk?

AL-KHAWAJA: It's not that I'm not scared. I'm terrified of going back to prison. In 2014, I was not only imprisoned, I was assaulted by the police. I was put in something we called the freezer. They tore my shoulder muscle. The injuries of that assault is something that I still deal with to this very day. But I think that saving my father's life is more important than my fear at this moment. And so I am willing to take that risk. I am willing to go back to Bahrain at a time when I'm already sentenced to one year in prison and I have four pending cases. And I know that there is a possibility I might end up spending the rest of my life in prison. But if there is any chance that my going back might save my father's life, then it's worth it.

FADEL: Wow. What if - I mean, what are you doing to try to protect yourself? Are there measures you're trying to take so that that doesn't happen when you get there, including speaking now?

AL-KHAWAJA: I've taken every measure I can possibly take to try and protect myself. So I'm trying to do everything I can to protect myself in every way possible. So I've been speaking out in the media, you know, getting as much attention to the case and to my trip as possible. I've been communicating with governments - especially the U.S and the Danish governments - and trying to get them to step up efforts, because if the Danish government - or if I saw that the U.S. government was really pressing for my father's release, if there was movement in that regard, then I would not need to go back to Bahrain and put myself at risk. And the other thing that I'm also doing is I have now a group of people who are coming with me. The secretary general of Amnesty International will be joining me on my trip. And hopefully that gives me some form of protection, at least from assault, if not from arrest.

FADEL: Maryam al-Khawaja, thank you for taking the time to talk to us.

AL-KHAWAJA: Thank you so much.


FADEL: In response to our queries, the Bahraini government said the reforms recently implemented at the prison where Abdulhadi al-Khawaja and others are being held, quote, "far exceed international standards," unquote. They deny that al-Khawaja is being refused health care and say he has repeatedly declined to attend his medical appointments.


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