Maryam Al-Khawaja

Right to freedom of opinion and expression. Right to freedom of assembly and association.
Gulf Centre for Human Rights
Young human rights activist in Bahrain She is currently President of Bahrain Center for Human Rights and co-director of the Gulf Center for Human Rights. In 2012 she received the Freedom Award of the Freedom House. 

Maryam Al-Khawaja began her activism with only 24 years old after the protests of the Arab Spring in Bahrain in 2011. She acquired a relevant role, mainly due to her direct transmission through Twitter of the protests and violations of human rights that were committed. In March of that year, the Human Rights Council of the United Nations invited her to participate in a roundtable to raise awareness of the human rights situation in Bahrain. Precisely those days they arrested her father, Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja, prominent human rights defender of Bahrain and one of the leaders of the Arab spring. Since then, Maryam has been forced to live exiled in Denmark and continues her activism from abroad. She has conducted numerous interviews for Democracy Now, the BBC, Al Jazeera, Frontline Defenders, and participates in forums such as the US-Islamic World Forum.

Her father is imprisoned since 2011 and sentenced to life imprisonment and has been the victim of torture and abuse. Her sister, Zainab Al-Khawaja, has also been jailed several times for her activism. For her part, Maryam was arrested in August 2014 when she arrived at Bahrain International Airport to visit her father who was hungry on strike at that time to protest against the arrest and the arbitrary detention. The accusation against Maryam was to insult the king, to participate in the campaign “Wanted for justice in Bahrain” and to assault a police while they were inspecting her. For this last charge, she was detained for 7 days without letting him speak with his lawyer. Finally, they released her and in October she left Bahrain. However, his trial for “assaulting a police officer” continued and, in December 2014, she was sentenced in absentia to a year in prison.

Interview with Maryam Al-Khawaja

What was your role during the Arab Spring in Bahrain in 2011?

As a human rights defender I played a very active role in promoting the pro-democracy protests. I also monitored the protests, documented human rights violations and was a connection point for journalists and international NGOs.

What impact did Twitter and social media have on the Bahrain revolution?

Activists and protesters made use of social media to document events, communicate and report on the situation on the ground. Due to the lack of media attention on the situation in Bahrain, social media was crucial to reach beyond the borders of Bahrain and report the situation on the ground.

4 years after the uprising in Bahrain, have changes been achieved? Has the human rights situation improved or worsened?

Unfortunately, the situation has worsened, more and more people are imprisoned for political reasons, torture is systematic and impunity is the norm. The difference between 2015 and 2011 is that in 2011 repression was chaotic and everywhere, a fact that captivated international attention. In 2015 the same violations and repression are committed, but now they are institutionalized and systematic.

How did you become such a young activist?

I was looking for a job after graduating from university, but because of my father’s human rights activism, I couldn’t find one, so I started volunteering at a human rights NGO. After a short time I had to go into exile because of kidnapping threats and became a full-time human rights defender.

What kind of challenges and threats do you face as a human rights activist? Especially what are the consequences of being a young, female activist in a country that constantly violates human rights?

I have suffered threats of all kinds: violence, rape and also death threats. I have been the victim of numerous smear campaigns over the past eight years. A policeman assaulted me, I have spent three weeks in prison, I am currently sentenced to one year “in absentia” and with eleven cases pending. I have many colleagues and family members in prison, many of whom are survivors of constant torture.

How would you encourage young people to get involved in activism and human rights advocacy?

I believe that reacting to injustice should be the norm rather than the exception, but we put people on a pedestal and consider them heroes who are simply doing what should be the normal reaction of any human being to injustice. e do not go out of our way to support or protect them, we simply prefer to quietly appreciate their choice to stand up for human rights.

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