Bahraini activist Maryam al-Khawaja has launched a hunger strike — two weeks after Bahraini police imprisoned the prominent human rights defender when she landed in the country to try to visit her father, also in jail and on a hunger strike at the time.
Her sister, Zainab al-Khawaja, also a vocal critic of the Bahraini government and recently released from prison on bail, announced the news of the hunger strike via Twitter on Friday.
Bahraini police arrested al-Khawaga on Aug. 30 at the airport in Manama, the capital of Bahrain, after she tried to enter the country. Police told her that she had been stripped of citizenship, without providing official proof. Al-Khawaja live-tweeted much of the incident to her popular following.
Police then detained al-Khawaja and charged her with assaulting a police officer. Al-Khawaga denied the charges. A medical report from the incident obtained by Sa yed Yousif Almuhafda, vice president of al-Khawaja's Bahrain Center for Human Rights, said al-Khawaja had minor bruises to her hand. Bahraini police have a documented history of beating and torturing activists, and then denying the incidents occurred. Authorities have since extended her detention twice, and at times denied access to her lawyer and family. Last week Al-Khawaja appeared in court with her arm in a sling, Al Jazeera reported.
"They just want to discredit her image," Almuhafda said. "We believe she was arrested for her work on human rights fighting for freedom and justice."
Bahrain — a tiny Persian Gulf island close to Iran and Saudi Arabia — erupted in pro-democracy protests in March 2011, at the start of the Arabic Spring. The anti-government protests at first drew from across Bahrain's political and social landscape, including both the country's marginalized Shia population and the majority Sunni community. Then Bahrain's leader Khalifa bin Salman Al Khalifa, aided by neighboring Saudi Arabia, initiated a violent crackdown on protesters, using the media, digital surveillance, and brute force to try and silence any dissent. Over the next three years many Bahrainis have continued to protest despite the continued repression. Al-Khawaja's father is currently serving a life sentence in connection to the 2011 protests.
The U.S., the U.N. and other Western countries have condemned al-Khawaja's arrest. But activists say they have not done enough, for fear of losing key political and economic ties. "In Bahrain we are victims we because we live in a country where the U.S. has a [military] base, so they have not been that critical... In the UK they care about arms sales, they don't care about Bahrain," Almuhafda said. "They are all about business and interest."
Almuhafda and other Bahraini activists have been lobbying various European Union countries and organizations in recent days to push for pressure on Bahrain to release al-Khawaja and enact reforms.
"We want a change," Almuhafda said. "We know it will take time...We know three years for us is nothing. That's why people will continue to protest and to struggle."
Former BuzzFeed World Reporter, Current BuzzFeed News Contributor
Contact Miriam Berger at email@example.com.
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