The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

One family pays a heavy price for demanding democracy in Bahrain

Bahraini anti-government protesters protect their faces from tear gas during a protest in April 2012, in downtown Manama, Bahrain, as they hold a sign in English and Arabic that reads "Free Abdulhadi al-Khawaja." Khawaja is a jailed opposition human rights activist and the father of Zainab al-Khawaja, whose own prison sentence was increased this week.  (Hasan Jamali/AP)

The al-Khawaja family bugs the Bahraini monarchy.

This week, a judge in Bahrain increased the prison sentence of Zainab al-Khawaja, 30, a human rights activist and mother of two, to more than five years, partly on a charge of ripping up a photo of Bahrain’s king.

Bahraini authorities have imprisoned her human rights activist father for life and sentenced her sister to a year in prison and forced her into exile in Europe. Her mother was fired from her job, and another sister has been unable to get a government permit to work as a nurse, despite finishing at the top of her nursing school class.

“The al-Khawaja family is a symbol, and an example of how all of our families are suffering,” said Said Yousif al-Muhafdah, another pro-democracy human rights activist who was jailed by the Bahraini monarchy but now lives in Germany, where the government granted him political asylum because of his fear of one of Washington’s closest allies in the Middle East.

[Zainab’s War: A mother risks everything for dignity]

The situation of the al-Khawaja family underscores the delicate and awkward relationship between the United States and an island nation that hosts the U.S. Navy’s 5th Fleet, has sent fighter jets to help the U.S-led bombardment of the Islamic State and sits little more than 100 miles across the Persian Gulf from an increasingly assertive Iran.

Bahrain’s Shiite community, which makes up a majority of country’s Muslim population, has long felt discriminated against and persecuted by the country’s Sunni monarchy. Shiites led a huge protest in early 2011 at the dawn of the Arab Spring at downtown Manama’s Pearl Roundabout.

Bahraini authorities, with the help of the Saudi military, brutally crushed that demonstration, and dozens of people died. Protests have continued almost nightly in villages throughout the island, and police regularly respond with tear gas, bird shot and batons — resulting in deaths and maimings. Several police officers have also been killed.

Bahrain is engaged in what Amnesty International recently called “a chilling crackdown on dissent” that still includes “torture, arbitrary detentions and excessive use for force against peaceful activists and government critics.”

In a written statement, the Bahraini Embassy in Washington rejected the Amnesty report as “unverified” and “unsubstantiated.” It said Bahrain had made “monumental strides” on its human rights record and reconciling with political opponents.

The statement said Bahrain had established an independent ombudsman to investigate abuses by security personnel; prosecuted more than 50 police and security officers last year for criminal acts; paid more than $26 million to people “affected by the unrest;” and provided human rights training to more than 5,000 police and more than half the judiciary.

“This illustrates the unwavering commitment by the Government to improve transparency and accountability,” the statement said.

Washington increasingly pushes Bahrain on its human rights record, and while it continues to provide Bahrain with military equipment, it withholds “the export of some articles, including crowd-control items, and those that could be used for internal security,” according to a written statement from the State Department.

But U.S. officials always seem extremely careful not to cross any lines that might seriously damage relations with a key ally, especially at a time of rising instability in the region.

The delicate dance between the Bahrainis and Washington reached its most awkward moment last summer, when Tom Malinowski, the assistant secretary of state for the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor was declared “persona non grata” and ordered to leave Bahrain after he met with representatives of a Shiite opposition party. He was finally allowed to return to Bahrain in December, but only after Secretary of State John F. Kerry called to complain about the highly unusual breach of diplomatic protocol.

Bahraini officials later arrested one of the opposition figures Malinowski met with, Sheikh Ali Salman, leader of the Shiite Al-Wefaq party. A State Department statement said the United States was “deeply concerned.”

U.S. officials have called for the immediate release of Nabeel Rajab, a prominent human rights activist who is facing up to 10 years in prison for making allegations on Twitter that the Bahraini government tortures prisoners. He was sentenced to six months last year for a tweet alleging that Bahraini men who joined the Islamic State terrorist organization had previously worked for Bahraini security forces, which he called an “incubator” of radical ideology.

Bahrain’s mainly Shiite protesters say they are sick of what they consider a Sunni dictatorship that is discriminates against them in housing, employment and even religious worship. They want democracy.

But Bahrain’s Sunni government is convinced that the protests are little more than a plot backed by Shiite Iran to destabilize their nation. The officials are undeterred by the fact that the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry, formed after the 2011 debacle, found no evidence of any foreign influence in Bahrain’s affairs.

“Iran has not shied away from meddling into the Bahrain domestic affairs,” the embassy statement said. Bahrain, it said, “has seen a surge in violence in the past few years where rioters are deploying increasingly skilled and professional targeted attacks against security personnel and civilians. Several individuals have been found to receive funding, training, arms and guidance from Iran to carry out attacks in the country.”

The protesters and human rights activists said the Bahrain uprisings are homegrown and have nothing to do with Iran. But Bahrain’s fear of Iranian influence has only grown as the Syrian conflict, the rise of the Islamic State and the Iran-backed chaos in Yemen have underscored the rising influence of Iran in the region.

Amid it all, the al-Khawaja family has become a potent emblem of Bahrain’s upheaval.

Zainab al-Khawaja’s father, Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, 54, is serving his life sentence on charges including “terrorism” and “attempting to overthrow the government.”

The charges stem from role as a leader of the largely peaceful pro-democracy uprising in February and March 2011, which was crushed when King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa called on his Sunni allies in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to send in soldiers.

An independent inquiry also found Bahraini authorities guilty of widespread torture of detained protesters, many of whom were doctors, nurses and other professionals.

In the middle of the protests, Bahraini police raided Khawaja’s home and arrested him, beating him so severely that he required surgery and metal plates to put his face back together, according to human rights activists who have monitored his case.

His family and rights groups say he has been tortured and abused regularly in prison since then. He has staged hunger strikes and become one of the most high-profile prisoners.

“These sentences are a joke,” said Zainab al-Khawaja’s sister, Maryam al-Khawaja, 27, who has been living in exile in Denmark for years and has become a well-known international advocate for democracy and human rights in Bahrain.

“We don’t have a dysfunctional justice system, we have a highly functional injustice system,” said Maryam al-Khawaja, who spent a year at Brown University on a Fulbright scholarship and has testified in the U.S. Congress about Bahrain’s rights record.

Maryam al-Khawaja said she returned to Bahrain last summer, despite fears that she might be arrested, because she was worried about the health of her father, who was on a hunger strike in prison.

She said she was arrested at the airport and charged with assaulting police officers — although she said the officers actually assaulted her. She spent the next three weeks in prison. She said she went on hunger strike, demanding to be allowed to see her father. After four days without eating, she was granted a visit.

She said her father was frail, emaciated and could barely walk or talk.

She was allowed to leave Bahrain, but convicted in absentia of assault and sentenced to a year in prison. She said if she returned she would be jailed, so the charge was simply a way to make sure she stayed away.

Zainab al-Khawaja could not be reached for comment. She is at home in Bahrain, free despite the prison sentence against her.

She has two children, a 5-year-old girl and a son who was born at the end of November. Maryam al-Khawaja said she believes that the government is worried about the bad publicity of throwing the mother of such a young baby in prison, but added, “They will go for her eventually.”

Zainab al-Khawaja has been arrested and jailed several times in recent years, all because of her involvement with anti-government protests.

“Zainab has sat down in the middle of the street, and refused to run in the face of tear gas and bird shot,” Maryam al-Khawaja said. “That drove them nuts. It’s easy to fight people who are throwing stones, but what do you do with someone who refuses to budge?”

Maryam al-Khawaja said that during a court appearance in October, her sister addressed the judge and said: “I’m a free person, born to free parents. And my son, when he is born, is going to be free.”

She then ripped up another picture of King Hamad, Maryam al-Khawaja said.

“There were no cameras there, it was not for publicity,” she said. “She just wanted to show that she had freedom of expression, and that she couldn’t be silenced.”

She was jailed for several weeks, and released a few days before her son was born in November.

In December, she was sentenced to four years and four months in prison for “insulting the king” and “destroying government property” for ripping up photos of the king, and “insulting a police officer,” for an argument she had with a prison guard during a visit to see her father.

This week, a judge added an additional nine months to her sentence — for a total of more than five years — on a charge of trespassing in a restricted area. Maryam al-Khawaja said her sister had heard that her father’s health was deteriorating, so, heavily pregnant, she went to the prison. As she approached the prison, she was arrested.

In its statement, the Bahraini Embassy said Zainab al-Khawaja’s supporters have attempted to “sensationalize” the charges against her. For example, it said, she “was not charged with tearing up a picture but with vandalism as she was destroying public property while in a police station.”

It said she had committed more “serious offenses,” including attempting to approach the restricted area around the prison.

“Ms. Al-Khawaja has a behavioral pattern of defying very standard procedural laws (in this case attempted entry into a prison outside of normal visiting hours) in efforts of capturing any international attention,” it said.

“It is unfair to expect the government, which has worked strenuously towards reform and reconciliation, to remain idle as hard-liners continue to disrupt law and order in attempts to achieve personal objectives,” the statement said.

[In Bahrain, anti-government violence rising again amid calls for more forceful U.S. policy]

To understand Bahrain’s ongoing uprisings, I visited the country in in October 2012 and met with Bahraini government officials, business leaders and human rights activists and attended several protests. One Friday afternoon, just before a big protest in the Old Souk at the center of Manama, I met with Zainab al-Khawaja in a coffee shop, where passersby asked to have their photo taken with her.

"We have a king who has been killing and torturing his own people," she said in perfect English. "We should have the right to protest against that."

Khawaja, who earned a bachelor's degree at Beloit College in Wisconsin, said she had been arrested six times in the previous 10 months, and that there were then 13 separate charges pending against her, mainly for participating in illegal protests.

She said police broke her leg earlier that year when they intentionally fired a tear gas canister directly into her leg at close range. She said she has been beaten by her jailers in front of her visiting toddler daughter.

She said she ripped up the king’s photo, twice, in front of police who were arresting her. “I believe that everybody should be ripping up the king’s picture,” she said. “This guy is a dictator. Ripping up his picture is a peaceful way to show that we do not accept this dictatorship.”

Khawaja was clearly fiery and passionate, but she spoke of her commitment to nonviolence and peaceful change. She said she was disappointed with the U.S. government’s approach to Bahrain.

“I believe in the basic goodness of the American people, but not the American government,” she said. “The American government cares more about their political interests than they do about freedom and democracy. By supporting the dictatorship here, they are making the people feel hopeless.”

And with that, she tightened her head scarf and walked out into the Souk’s narrow alleys, where police carrying tear gas and pepper spray were waiting for the protest to begin.