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Profile: Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja

Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja, co-founder of both the Bahrain Center for Human Rights and the Gulf Center for Human Rights, is perhaps Bahrain’s most prominent government critic and human rights campaigner. He spent 12 years in exile advocating for human rights in his homeland. When he returned, he was sentenced to life in prison for inspiring his fellow Bahrainis to do the same.

AP Photo/Sylvain Cherkaoui, File

On 20 April 2012, 72 days into his hunger strike, Abdulhadi al-Khawaja asked his wife to relay the following message to the people of Bahrain.

If I die in the next 24 hours, I ask the people to continue on the path of peaceful resistance ... I don't want anybody to be hurt in my name.

While Abdhulhadi Al-Khawaja rose to international prominence during Bahrain's 2011 uprising, his activism began much earlier.

As a student in London in the 1970s, Al-Khawaja marched in protests against the unlawful arrest of citizens in Bahrain. His participation was costly. Many students, including Al-Khawaja, were denied renewal of their passports. In the summer of 1980, after fellow protesters who returned to Bahrain were detained and interrogated under torture and his family house had been ransacked, Al-Khawaja decided to remain and work from abroad.

In 1991, he was granted political asylum in Denmark, where he established the Bahrain Human Rights Organisation, which gained international recognition for its role in contributing to positive political changes in Bahrain after a new ruler, Hamad ibn Isa Khalifa, took over in 1999.

Al Khawaja returned to Bahrain under a general amnesty in 2001, and founded the Bahrain Center for Human Rights. From 2008 to 2011, he served as the Middle East and North Africa protection coordinator for Front Line Defenders, an organisation founded in 2001 that protects human rights defenders at risk.

Al-Khawaja's long and distinguished history of activism came to an abrupt standstill on 9 April 2011 when masked men broke into his daughter's house, attacked him, and dragged him into detention. He was put on trial with 20 other Bahrainis on charges of "managing a terrorist organization" and "attempting to overthrow the government by force", and on 22 June 2011 he was sentenced to life imprisonment in Bahrain's notorious Jaw prison – from which alarming reports of torture have emerged.

Since September 2013, when the highest court in Bahrain upheld his life sentence, the only form of protest available to Al-Khawaja has been to hunger strike. His first strike lasted for 110 days.

Al Khawaja's family continue his work. His daughter, Maryam Al-Khawaja, has been the acting president of the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights during Nabeel Rajab's periods of detention, and speaks frequently to international audiences about human rights in Bahrain. Zainab Al-Khawaja, Maryam's older sister, has been detained several times since joining the protest movement in 2011.

[Last updated: 15 April 2015]

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