THE BLOG

A Day in the Life of Maryam Al Khawaja

A day spent working with Bahraini human rights activist Maryam Al Khawaja is likely to be kinetic. I've had the privilege of trying to keep up with her in Washington, New York, Geneva and elsewhere as she championed the cause of democracy and human rights in Bahrain. She's passionate, energetic and diligent. She does her homework on what she's going to say and who's going to hear it.

It's hard to think of her sitting bored in jail now. She was arrested on her return to Bahrain a few days ago and faces a charge of assaulting police officers -- a charge she denies -- when they confiscated her phone at the airport. The repressive regime, a U.S. ally, is considering other charges. She's being held for an initial seven days.

Maryam's family is famed for their activism. Her sister Zainab -- who gained renown when she stood her ground against riot police as tear gas canisters flew by -- has been arrested twice and beaten in detention. Their father, Abdulhadi, former president of the Bahraini Center of Human Rights, was dragged out of his house by masked police men on April 2011, detained and sentenced to life in prison. With both her father and the Center for Human Rights Nabeel Rajab in prison, Maryam has served as its head from Copenhagen. She'd returned to Bahrain despite the risks in the hopes of being permitted to visit her dad, who recently launched a hunger strike to draw attention the continued arbitrary arrests.

Today Zainab told me what it's like in Isa Town Detention facility for women. Zainab knows, having spent most of last year in either the detention center or the prison there after being sentenced for peacefully protesting.

"There are four or five rusting bunk beds in each cell," she said. "So eight or ten inmates in theory, but sometimes it gets really overcrowded with people sleeping on the floor. Not all the mattresses have sheets so you sort of stick to the shiny leathery material. The lights go on around 6 or 7am, and that's when there's the first of three name-checks, where you have to run out into the corridor to be checked. Really it's an opportunity for the guards to humiliate people, going into their cells and pulling their sheets off if they accidentally oversleep, and shouting and screaming at the detainees as they line up, telling them they smell and mocking people."

Zainab said that her family has not yet been allowed to visit Maryam, but she's managed to reach them by phone. "We tried for two days now to get a towel into her but they refused -- she can't shower and they said we'll have to wait till next week." Other conditions in the detention center are also less than optimal. "You're supposed to be allowed out for exercise every day, but it rarely happens. When I was in prison there we weren't allowed out for three months at one stage, it's unlikely she'll get to go outside. The meals are served three times a day and are disgusting -- served on trays that one day were white and are now yellow. It's common to find hair in the food, and once we found a dead mouse."

The worse thing, said Zainab, is the loss of control. "You have to address the guards as 'madame' and they decide everything -- when the lights go out, if the AC is on, if you're allowed to walk in the corridors without being shouted at, everything. It's really a daily heartbreak when you see how people are humiliated."

Maryam's lawyer, Mohammed Al Jishi, told me he was not allowed to meet with her before her questioning at the public prosecutor's office. Nor was he allowed to advise her of her rights during the questioning.

Abdulhadi Al Khawaja's health has sharply deteriorated since he began the hunger strike early last week. Zainab herself has another court case tomorrow, dating from an incident in prison in June 2013 when she stood up to a guard who was abusing a fellow prisoner. "I told her she ought to respect people if she wants to be respected, and she freaked out."

Maryam's family members are hopeful they'll be able to see her for half an hour tomorrow but there are no guarantees. "It not like being in there in somehow relaxing because you're not at work," said Zainab. "The smallest things like getting a pen and the ever-present danger of having your cell raided and all your stuff thrown all over the floor, it's all constantly stressful."

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