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“All human beings are born free and equal

in dignity and rights.”

- Universal Declaration of Human Rights

Abdulhadi al-Khawaja

Close up of Abdulhadi al-Khawaja

Detained Since: April 9, 2011.

Charges: Financing and participating in terrorism to overthrow the government. Spying for a foreign country.

Sentence: Life in prison.

Biography: Abdulhadi al-Khawaja has been a well-known human rights defender for more than twenty years.  Until February 2011, al-Khawaja worked as a regional coordinator for the international organization Front Line Defenders. 

Just before his current detention, Mr. al-Khawaja had publicly criticized the regime’s brutal response to the anti-government protests in Bahrain.  Early on April 9, 2011, fifteen masked men stormed into al-Khawaja’s apartment, breaking down the door with a sledgehammer and beat al-Khawaja until he lost consciousness.  He was taken into custody along with his two sons-in-law.  Authorities held him incommunicado for several weeks and tortured him. On May 8, 2011, al-Khawaja’s trial began before the National Safety Court – a military tribunal.  He was prosecuted along with a diverse set of twenty other individuals. Despite the lack of evidence against him, Mr. al-Khawaja was charged and convicted with financing and participating in terrorism to overthrow the government, as well as spying for a foreign country.  On June 22, 2011, he was sentenced to life imprisonment.  On April 2, 2012, the Bahraini Court of Cassation began to review the verdicts of Mr. al-Khawaja and thirteen other defendants charged in relation to the 2011 anti-government protests. On April 30, 2012, the Court of Cassation ordered a retrial in civilian court and refused to release al-Khawaja on bail pending the trial.  On September 4, 2012, a Bahraini appeals court upheld his sentence of life in prison.  On January 7, 2013, Bahrain’s highest appeals court upheld al-Khawaja’s conviction and life sentence.

al-Khawaja has suffered four fractures to his face, requiring a four hour surgery to repair his jaw as a result of beating by security guards. He has also been subjected to sexual and psychological torture.  On February 8, 2012, al-Khawaja began a hunger strike to protest his wrongful detention and treatment in prison.  He ended his hunger strike after 110 days on May 30, 2012. During his hunger strike, al-Khawaja’s health deteriorated and he reportedly lost 22 pounds.

Advocacy Partner: Reporters Without Borders

Advocate: Rep. Ro Khanna (D-CA)


  • Zainab al-Khawaja, the daughter of Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, was arrested in March 2016 along with her 15 month old son. She was released in May 2016 on humanitarian grounds (May 31, 2016, The Guardian).
  • Khawaja began a hunger strike on April 12 in a Manama prison to protest the 'arbitrary detention and degrading treatment of prisoners in Bahrain' (April 27, 2017, Gulf Times).
  • Al-Khawaja suspended his hunger strike on its 24th day following strong recommendations during Bahrain’s Universal Periodic Review (UPR) at the United Nations (May 5, 2017, Gulf Center for Human Rights).
  • Since October 16 2017, al-Khawaja has faced increased reprisals including having his belongings confiscated. On 10 November 2017, the prison authorities restricted all access to television, radio, books, and there are no independent newspapers available. Additionally, prisoners, including al-Khawaja, lost access to pens or paper, and all daily activities were cancelled (December 19, 2017, FIDH).
  • Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja and other imprisoned human rights defenders have been informed that all subsequent family visits in Jaw Prison will be carried out behind a glass wall. Imposing the glass barrier on human rights defenders is a form of collective punishment that violates human rights law such as the United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners (Mandela Rules) (January 17, 2019, Gulf Center for Human Rights).
  • On the 8th anniversary of the Pearl Uprising, Rep. James P. McGovern inserted remarks into the Congressional Record calling on the government of Bahrain to release Abdulhadi al-Khawaja and other prisoners of conscience and reform policies that risk fostering extremism (February 14, 2019, Congressional Record).
  • Front Line Defenders launched the ‘Set Them Free’ campaign to shine a light on the fate of 11 human rights activists, includng Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, suffering long-term imprisonment for "their legitimate work defending and advancing the rights of their communities" (October 3, 2019, Breaking News).
  • The UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders Mary Lawlor sent a communication to the government of Bahrain expressing concern for the allegations of torture, and other inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment faced by Mr. Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja, Mr. Abduljalil Al-Singace, and Mr. Naji Ali Fateel (July 8, 2021, UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders).