Bahrain: allegations of torture, ill treatment and poor prison conditions of human rights defender Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja (joint communication)

The following is based on a communication written by the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders and other UN experts to the Government of Bahrain on 17 February 2023. The communication remained confidential for 60 days before being made public, giving the Government time to reply. The Government replied on 17 April 2023, which was recently translated and made publicly available.

Since the sending of the communication, Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja’s state of health has deteriorated. Since March 2023, he has been repeatedly denied access to a cardiologist despite being at risk of a heart attack.

This is a shorter version of the original communication.

Read the full communication Read the Government's response


Topic: allegations of torture, ill treatment and poor prison conditions of human rights defender Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja, including the restriction of communication with family, and deprivation of his right to give power of attorney to his lawyer in court, as required.

Mr. Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja عبدالهاديالخواجة is a dual Bahraini-Danish citizen, a human rights defender and former Protection Coordinator at Frontline Defenders, as well as the former President of the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights (BCHR), and the winner of the 2022 Martin Ennals Award for Human Rights Defenders.

Mr. Al-Khawaja was arrested in April 2011 following his participation in peaceful demonstrations calling for political reform. He was tried before the National Safety Court, a military jurisdiction and was convicted and sentenced on 22 June 2011 to life imprisonment for “membership in a terrorist group seeking to overthrow the royal system”; “contact with a terrorist organisation abroad”; and “spreading false information,” among other charges. He is currently serving this sentence in Bahrain’s Jau prison.

Through his work as a human rights defender, Mr. Al-Khawaja has openly discussed human rights concerns in Bahrain with a number of international human rights organizations including the United Nations.


On 29 December 2022, Bahrain’s High Criminal Court rejected Mr. Al-Khawaja’s appeal on a charge related to insulting a civil servant and refusing to engage with a prison guard on grounds that he allegedly tortured a cellmate of Mr. Al-Khawaja. The prison guard brought the case against Mr. Al-Khawaja.

On 5 January 2023, Mr. Al-Khawaja wrote to the Minister of Justice, describing how he was prevented from attending a court session on new charges issued against him in November 2022 while he was serving a life sentence on terrorism charges. He detailed the escalation in ill-treatment against him and other prisoners that included intimidation, restriction of communication with family, deprivation of basic rights, including his inability to give power of attorney to his lawyer in court, as required, as well as fabrication of cases against him and other political prisoners in Bahrain. He also complained about the prison guard’s torture of dozens of prisoners and empowering of prison guards to be perpetrators of torture. The letter was made public and copied to United Nations officials and diplomats.

Also on 5 January 2023, Bahrain’s High Criminal Court upheld a conviction against him for breaking a plastic chair during an incident in November 2021 in which he protested the denial of his right to call his two daughters. Mr. Al- Khawaja had instructed his legal defence team to withdraw from the court session because he was not brought to court and was not given the right to meet with his lawyer before the hearing. He was fined 60 BD (159 USD).

On 6 January 2023, prison guards attempted to force Mr. Al-Khawaja into a room alone with a prison guard whom he had previously been convicted of ‘insulting’ because Mr. Al-Khawaja had named him as one of his torturers. Prison guards took him from his cell in Jau Prison to the administration building where he was led to believe he would be calling his lawyer. When guards attempted instead to force him in a room with the guard, Mr. Al-Khawaja shouted slogans against the prison authorities and the Interior Minister until they stopped pushing him.

On 8 January 2023, Mr. Al-Khawaja was told by prison authorities that he would not be allowed to call his lawyer anymore, and that his general call hours would also be cut back.

In addition, Mr. Al-Khawaja also faces a charge of incitement to overthrow or change the regime in relation to his chants against the Interior Minister in protest at ill-treatment during his transport to hospital for back treatment in July 2022. Prison authorities insisted on shackling his hands and feet, despite doctors’ orders to the contrary, while transporting him in a small bus with no ventilation. No trial date has been set so far.

The new charges and an increase in his ill-treatment in prison appear to be in retaliation to his activism regarding the treatment of political prisoners. They also came after a European Parliament resolution on 15 December 2022 calling for his release; the November 2022 UN Universal Periodic Review of Bahrain; the September 2022 UN Secretary General’s annual report on reprisals, and his receipt of the June 2022 annual Martin Ennals Award for Human Rights Defenders at Risk.


In the communication, we express our utmost concern at the continued arbitrary detention of human rights defender Mr. Al-Khawaja.

We remain deeply concerned by the renewed allegations of torture, and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment and punishment of Mr. Al-Khawaja, in clear violation of his rights as a prisoner to maintain contact with his lawyer and family.

We also express our concern with regard to the recent judicial harassment of Mr. Al-Khawaja and the denial of due process in assuring his right to fair trial for the new charges brought against him, and to communicate with his lawyer and attend his hearings. We also remain troubled that the continued intimidation, harassment and mistreatment of Mr. Al-Khawaja by the authorities stem from the past and current exercise of his rights to freedom of association, peaceful assembly and expression.


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