24th Sep 2023

Jailed Danish rights defender in Bahrain on hunger strike

  • European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen with Bahrain's crown prince and prime minister, Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa (Photo: EC - Audiovisual Service)
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The European Commission says it is advocating for prominent jailed Bahraini-Danish human rights defender, Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja, who has now gone on hunger strike.

"We are exchanging regularly with the Bahraini authorities on this case," said Nabila Massrali, spokesperson for the EU's foreign policy department, in an email on Friday (1 September).

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But after a decade in a Bahrain prison and now two-weeks into a hunger strike, the EU's leverage to secure Al-Khawaja's release appears increasingly strained.

Similar efforts were made in 2012 and came after a senior advisor to EU foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton had defended Bahrain's security forces after they opened fire on protesters with live ammunition.

Human Rights Watch, an NGO, has since described the EU's diplomatic pressure as a "macroscopic failure".

"The EU has been raising his and other cases privately for over a decade, to no result. It is hard to see how more of the same approach would lead to different results," said Claudio Francavilla at Human Rights Watch on Monday (4 September).

Al-Khawaja was sentenced to life in prison by a Bahraini court in 2011 for his role in peaceful demonstrations, following the wider Arab Spring uprising.

Last year, the European Parliament passed a resolution demanding his release, noting that some 26 people in Bahrain are also facing execution.

The 62-year old's health is said to be deteriorating given the conditions endured during detention, including torture.

Al-Khawaja, along with hundreds of other people detained at the Jau prison in Bahrain, have been staging a hunger strike for over two weeks.

Last week in a statement, a spokesperson from the United Nation's Human Rights office said that authorities have since agreed to improve medical conditions in the prison.

"We are ready to conduct an assessment of prison conditions in the country and provide advice to authorities in line with international standards," said the UN statement.

For its part, the European Commission says they are seeking clarifications on Al-Khawaja's health, his access to medical treatment, as well as details on the judicial process, including in the context of the annual EU-Bahrain human rights dialogues.

The last annual dialogue, the sixth, took place October 2022.

The commission also says they have constantly reiterated the need to respect the UN guidelines on the minimum standards of treatment of prisoners [the so-called Mandela rules], as well as the EU's position on freedom of expression and association.

But such efforts are given short shrift by Francavilla, who says the EU has in fact silently tolerated his and others' detention without taking any action to escalate pressure on the Bahraini government.

"Sadly, the same lack of ambition underpins the whole EU approach to repressive Gulf countries," said Francavilla.

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