Amnesty International have today (30 March) called for the release of a leading Bahraini human rights defender serving a life sentence for his role in anti-government protests during last year's Arab Spring.
There are fears that Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja is at risk of death after 50 days on hunger strike.
Al-Khawaja, 52, is a former protection co-ordinator with Frontline, an NGO which supports human rights defenders. He was arrested in April 2011 for being one of the leaders of anti-government protests. He was tortured in custody and in June was sentenced to life imprisonment in what Amnesty described as a “grossly unfair” trial by a military court.
Amnesty consider Al-Khawaja to be a prisoner of conscience. He has not used or advocated violence in his participation in the anti-government protests, and no such evidence was shown by the authorities during his trial.
According to his lawyer, he has lost 16kg since his hunger strike began on 8 February.
“The Bahraini authorities have made pledges that they would release people who were imprisoned for exercising their right to freedom of expression,” explained Amnesty's Philip Luther, “But the continued imprisonment of Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja demonstrates that they are not serious about fulfilling such promises”.
According to Al-Khawaja's family, he was beaten during his arrest, taken away barefoot and not allowed to take his diabetes medication with him. He was denied family visits until the first session of his trial in May, although his family reportedly spoke with him on the phone.
At his trial Al-Khawaja told the court how he was tortured in prison. As a result of severe beatings and other ill-treatment in prison he was admitted to the Bahrain Defence Force Hospital in April last year with a cracked jaw and skull and has had several operations on his head and face. No independent investigation into his torture has yet been initiated.
The life sentence handed down by a military court in the capital Manama in June was upheld by the National Safety Court of Appeal, also a military court, in September 2011. Al-Khawaja’s appeal is set to be heard in Bahrain’s Court of Cassation next week (2 April).
Demonstrators in Manama attempted to stage a sit-in at a main highway earlier this week, calling for Al-Khawaja's release, but were quickly dispersed by riot police.
Al-Khawaja, who is married with four daughters, is also a citizen of Denmark, where he lived in exile for decades. He returned to Bahrain after the government announced a general amnesty in 2001. Danish diplomats have visited him in prison several times and confirmed his deteriorating health.