Four years ago this month in 2011, nearly 6,000 people took to the streets of Bahrain to demand political and constitutional reform and social justice. It was the beginning of the Arab Spring, a period of swift, turbulent change. And while reform has traveled a rocky road, with many promises still unfulfilled, in the past four years, the region has been unmistakably changed. Autocratic rulers have been replaced in Tunisia, Yemen, Egypt, and Libya and constitutional reforms have been made in Morocco and Jordan. But, the Arab Spring did not bloom in Bahrain despite large-scale protests that erupted in the small island state. In fact, repression still reigns.
The international community has done all it can to document the abuses, the repeated crackdowns, the rounds of arrests, the nearly 100 deaths, and the attempts by local civil society to shine light on the various violations by the Kingdom of Bahrain, a close Western ally. But what is lost in the context of the news coverage is the story of those who have been there since the beginning, imprisoned in the very first round of crackdowns, and largely forgotten in the four years since, in which little has changed.
Abdulhadi al-Khawaja was among the vanguard of reformers. He had been a well-known human rights defender for over twenty years and an outspoken critic of the royal family that rules Bahrain before April 9, 2011. It was on that night that 15 masked men used a sledgehammer to break down the door of his daughter’s apartment, beat Mr. al-Khawaja until he lost consciousness, and literally drag him into custody. On June 22, 2011, he was sentenced to life imprisonment for supporting terrorism and spying.
The trial and the subsequent appeals process were beset with procedural irregularities and outright violations of international law. For example, Mr. al-Khawaja, a civilian, was prosecuted before a military court. He was tried along with 20 individuals, some in absentia, with whom he had no affiliation. Neither Mr. al-Khawaja nor his witnesses were permitted to testify. During the trial, Mr. al-Khawaja’s access to lawyers was limited. He was only allowed ten to thirty minutes to consult his attorney after each hearing and these meetings were usually conducted under the supervision of the court authorities. An appeals process held in the civilian courts was also plagued with procedural irregularities. The only evidence presented before the appeals court were confessions obtained through torture. The judges held the proceedings in secret and banned any media coverage of the case. Finally, in January 2013, after numerous delays, Bahrain’s top court upheld the convictions and ended the appeals process.
The international community found traction in those early years following Mr. al-Khawaja’s imprisonment. A petition filed by Freedom Now on behalf of Mr. al-Khawaja led the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention to rule that the Bahraini government had violated international human rights law and its own international commitments. And pressure by international human rights organizations, U.S. Senators, and the U.S. State Department exposed cracks in the government’s façade.
But the international community quickly lost focus on Mr. al-Khawaja, turning its attention towards new and frightening threats in the Middle East, West Africa, and Eastern Europe. In the meantime, the government’s crackdown in Bahrain continues unabated. In the last month alone, the government has imprisoned 1,221 individuals (including opposition leader Sheikh Ali Salman), postponed 187 trials, sentenced 97 individuals to a total of 1,173 years, and revoked the citizenship of 72 individuals. Meanwhile, the U.S. and the UK continue to strengthen military ties with a regime that avoids implementing even the most basic reforms.
The time has come for the U.S. and international community to rally to the cause of Mr. al-Khawaja again. With the imprisonment of his daughter, Zainab al-Khawaja, and his colleague, Nabeel Rajab, Mr. al-Khawaja’s support network is crumbling. We must provide him with the voice Bahrain has denied him for so long. Four years of silence is four years too many.