Democracy Lab

Maryam al-Khawaja, the Inconvenient Activist

The arrest of Bahraini human rights activist Maryam al-Khawaja marks a new low point for the country’s autocracy.

"They keep saying I'm not a citizen," tweeted human rights defender (and FP Global Thinker) Maryam al-Khawaja early on the morning of Aug. 30. A few hours earlier she had stepped off a plane in her home country of Bahrain, where she hoped to pay a visit to her ailing father, Abdulhadi al-Khawaja. He's currently serving a life sentence in a Bahraini prison on trumped-up terrorism charges. His real offense: organizing peaceful protests during Bahrain's Arab Spring uprising against the government. On Aug. 25 he started a hunger strike "in protest against the continuation of arbitrary arrest and detention" in Bahrain -- his second since he began serving his prison sentence on June 22, 2011. All of which might help to explain why the authorities were waiting for Maryam as soon as she arrived. They immediately took her into custody. (And yes, Maryam al-Khawaja is indisputably a Bahraini citizen. Like her father, she also has a Danish passport.)

A few days before Maryam made her own attempt to enter Bahrain, her sister, Zainab al-Khawaja, who lives in Bahrain, was arrested and charged with "entering a restricted area" after demanding a chance to visit her father. So the whole situation offers a snapshot of the grim realities the Khawaja family faces on a daily basis in their call for dignity and justice in Bahrain.

For 12 hours after Maryam tweeted the news of her detention, her whereabouts were unknown to her family, lawyer, colleagues, and friends. It was the Danish consulate in Bahrain that finally notified her family that Maryam was being taken to the public prosecutor to face unknown charges. Once the hearing convened, Maryam, who was prevented from calling her lawyer, was informed that she faced three charges: insulting the king; participating in the "Wanted for Justice in Bahrain Campaign" of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights; and assaulting a policewoman. It was the latter charge that prompted the prosecutor to sentence her to seven days in detention in Isa Town Detention Center for Women pending an "investigation." (In reality, four Bahraini police officers tackled Maryam in an attempt to seize her phone.) Maryam has been forbidden any contact with her lawyer for the entire seven days, which the International Service for Human Rights has declared to be "in contravention of international human rights law."

Three years after the start of Bahrain's February 14 Revolution, the country's prisons are still filled with thousands of political prisoners. Maryam al-Khawaja is now among them. In her public appearances, Maryam has often described Bahrain's revolution as the "inconvenient revolution" -- a reference to the many powerful countries, including the United States, that stand behind the Bahraini regime. Her tireless work and activism -- including, among other things, the article she and I co-authored for FP's Democracy Lab some time ago -- can be seen as inconvenient to many regimes in the same sense. As a selfless human rights defender who has expressed her solidarity with other struggles for justice, dignity, and self-determination across the Middle East and North Africa region, ranging from the Western Sahara to Syria, Maryam has made herself an obstacle to many regimes. As a result, she has been banned from traveling to other countries in the Gulf; recently she was also denied entry to Egypt.

The last time Maryam attempted to return to Bahrain from self-imposed exile in Denmark was August 2013. After booking her flight and going through the online check-in process, she arrived at Copenhagen Airport only to be informed at the British Airways counter that she would not be allowed to board the flight due to a request from the Bahraini government. In January of the same year, Maryam had succeeded in making a 10-day visit to Bahrain with little or no hassle from the authorities.

Over the course of the past 21 months, then, Maryam has gone from voluntary exile to detention in the same prison that houses many of the prisoners she has lobbied for abroad. This suggests that the Bahraini government's backlash against the 2011 protests is intensifying. During the same period the regime has introduced a number of measures intended to further marginalize its critics. In addition to its usual tactics for the violent suppression of protests, which have been strongly criticized by a number of international human rights organizations, the Bahraini regime has attempted to lay down a legal framework to justify its ongoing crackdown.

In July, the Bahraini regime introduced new amendments to the already vague and contested 2006 anti-terrorism law. The amendments grant the Ministry of Interior, in addition to the king, greater power in making decisions that allow officials to strip the citizenship of anyone the government deems to be a "terrorist" -- language purposefully left open-ended in order to allow for the broadest possible application against dissent. The measure was supported by a royal decree that once again attests to the monarchy's direct intervention in the kingdom's legal affairs. The king's action thus clearly contradicts Article 32 of the Bahraini constitution, which asserts the separation of powers among the legislative, executive, and judiciary. Both the United Nations human rights office and Human Rights Watch have issued statements condemning these amendments, which have already been used against a number of Bahrainis, leaving them stateless.

Bahrain's deepening intransigence took on surprising form in July, when the regime decided to kick out U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Tom Malinowski. Bahraini officials were apparently upset by Malinowski's willingness to meet with opposition leaders during his visit to the country. The United States is one of Bahrain's most important allies, and officials in Washington are habitually loath to criticize the government in Manama, given that the U.S. Navy's Fifth Fleet has its headquarters there. But none of that appears to matter especially to Bahrain's government these days -- perhaps because the United States has gone on supplying it with billions of dollars worth of weapons regardless.

Meanwhile, Bahrain's government continues its mistreatment of prisoners, as demonstrated by the constant stream of cases published on the Bahrain Center for Human Rights website. Some highlight the rampant human rights abuses committed against Bahrainis, including sentences of lifetime imprisonment imposed on two children and failure to provide proper medical treatment to a blind detainee. The Bahraini regime has also employed covert tactics in order to intimidate and silence dissidents, as in the case of dozens of Bahraini activists and lawyers who were targeted with malicious spyware supplied by companies from the United Kingdom and Germany.

When I traveled with Maryam al-Khawaja to my home country of Morocco in February 2013 -- around the second anniversary of Morocco's pro-democracy February 20 Movement -- we were met with an extended questioning session at the customs booth in the airport, and were then followed by security agents throughout the duration of our stay. What makes Maryam inconvenient is that she is willing to speak up for the struggles of others as well as for her own. And just as she has stood up for so many, so we should for her.



Britain's Radical Challenge

The threat of British jihadists can't be an excuse for the country to abandon its foundational principles.

In a video released this week, a masked jihadist stands over Steven Sotloff, sentencing the American journalist to death for what he termed as President Barack Obama's "arrogant foreign policy towards the Islamic State," also known as ISIS. The jihadist spoke with a clear and unmistakable British accent -- and threatened that his next victim would be another British citizen, aid worker, David Cawthorne Haines. Britain is therefore faced with the ghoulish spectacle of British citizens traveling thousands of miles to Syria, only to behead other Britons.

The news of Sotloff's killing comes less than 24 hours after British Prime Minister David Cameron announced Britain's new counterterrorism approach. The first and most obvious point of the prime minister's speech is that the Islamic State (IS) is a threat: The videos of the executions of Sotloff and James Foley, another American journalist, were aired from territory that IS controls, after having beaten back the Iraqi and Syrian armies, as well as more moderate Syrian rebel forces. The second is that British citizens are at risk from IS in two different ways. Firstly, they can be targeted directly, in IS-held territory, as Haines himself was. And secondly, they can be targeted directly by one of their own, like the British radical who threatened to kill Haines. It's homegrown radical Islamism, on foreign soil, that's threatening Britons at home and abroad.

The prime minister asked the House of Commons to have an open debate on his government's plan to tackle these problems. Some items were less controversial than others: It has been clear that Britain would support the U.S. airstrikes on IS positions in Iraq, and officially back the U.S. policy of pushing for a broad-based Iraqi government that could roll back the threat of IS.

But other items were more controversial, and they relate precisely to the challenge represented by the British member of IS in the Sotloff video. What Britain will do about British nationals that join the Islamic State -- or indeed, other fanatic Islamist groups -- is an issue that has troubled different parts of British society, and the state itself, for quite some time. Can their citizenship rights be somehow suspended in order to battle that threat?

Previously, the British counterterrorism establishment was focused on fanatics inside the country. In 2005, that was the core consideration of the "Prevent" strategy, which concentrated on Muslim Britons who may be targeted by fanatic Islamist preachers for recruitment. British security services remain concerned about that kind of threat, and the security level has been raised recently nationwide to reflect an ongoing apprehension.

But now Britain must also contend with a new threat. At least 500 British nationals have traveled to Syria and Iraq, and the security establishment at large harbors grave concerns about the impact of that experience upon them. The fear is that these nationals will travel to these conflict zones, train with fanatic Islamists, and then return to Britain to conduct attacks on home soil.

It is not clear how many British nationals have such intentions. So far, those that travel to Syria and Iraq appear to be doing so for purposes that relate far more to the political situation in that part of the world, rather than grievances against Britain. The Britons and other Europeans who have already returned home have not been involved in nefarious activity -- yet. Nevertheless, given the global ambitions of ISIS, it cannot be ruled out that Britons indoctrinated with the group's ideology will return home to conduct such attacks.

Cameron made it clear he took that possibility very seriously, as well he should. Indeed, that is a key component of the prime minister's job description -- to maintain the security of the realm. But the response of his government ought to be one based on prudence and care, rather than relying on knee-jerk responses. His speech in the Commons on Monday saw signs of both approaches being considered.

The prime minister identified two main "gaps" in Britain's security arsenal -- the capacity of the police to take away passports from people at the British border (presumably whether they are leaving or entering), and to exclude British nationals from returning to Britain. The first of these policies is relatively uncomplicated, but the second raises incredibly serious questions about Britain's approach to counterterrorism, and the fundamental challenges it presents to our legal system.

A passport, it must be recognized, is not the property of the bearer. It belongs to the queen, as the head of the United Kingdom, and is provided to citizens with the express purpose of declaring, in her name, that they be allowed to "pass freely without let or hindrance, and to afford the bearer such assistance and protection as may be necessary." If a passport is seized, whether upon entry or departure, it ought not to be simply at the arbitrary discretion of the state without judicial review. If such measures are temporary, they may be considered to be justifiable, on a case-by-case basis.

It was Cameron's second point, however, that raises far more questions -- and which raised the ire of many of his own party members in Parliament. While it is, as he noted, "abhorrent" that British members of ISIS would be able to return to Britain, posing a threat to national security, the response cannot be to simply exclude them from their own country. If they renounce British citizenship, that is another issue entirely -- but if they maintain their citizenship and are intent on committing a crime, the British state is legally obliged to allow them to enter and then to arrest them and subject them to the due process of the law.

Representatives from all three of the major British parties critiqued Cameron's suggestion that the government could block British citizens from entering the country. Labour Party head Ed Miliband, had his queries, though carefully stated, while Sir Menzies Campbell of the Liberal Democrats far more openly expressed his view that such a policy would run afoul of Britain's international legal obligations.

That's not a subjective viewpoint -- according to experts, it's a legal obligation. Indeed, even former Attorney General Dominic Grieve, who served in that position until this summer, noted in the Commons that the suggestion to bar British nationals from the country not only offended principles of "international law, it would actually offend basic principles of our own common law as well."

Of course, the Islamic State rejects the trappings of international and common law, not to mention the modern state and the notion of citizenship. Britain, on the other hand, is built upon those principles. The country stands in the midst of a potential trauma -- the idea that Britons could be guilty of plotting from overseas to wreak violent havoc upon their country is a type of treason the country has not seen in a long while. But the response to this threat is not to slowly chip away at the bedrock of what makes Britain great. On the contrary, it is precisely at times like these that it's more important than ever to uphold Britain's values to their fullest, without compromise.