Bahraini human rights activist Zainab al-Khawaja was imprisoned with her 1-year-old son on March 14 for ripping up a photo of the king. Her father Abdulhadi al-Khawaja is also serving life in prison for leading pro-democracy protests in 2011.
I covered the story in detail for Salon.
The US government — which is a close ally of Bahrain, the home to the Navy’s Fifth Fleet — was asked about the case four times in the five daily State Department press briefings in the week from March 14 to March 18. Every single time he was asked, the State Department spokesperson refused to condemn the politically motivated imprisonment.
Here are the transcripts:
QUESTION: I’ve got two; they’ll be brief. One is Bahrain and the arrest of – are you aware of the arrest or renewed detention of a woman named Zainab al-Khawaja and her infant child?
MR KIRBY: Yes, we are aware of those reports.
QUESTION: And what have you said to the Bahrainis, if anything, about this?
MR KIRBY: What I can tell you is we’re monitoring the situation there. And as before, we strongly urge the Government of Bahrain to follow due process in all cases and to abide by its commitment to transparent judicial proceedings conducted in full accordance with Bahrain’s international legal obligations. I can’t speak to specific —
QUESTION: Well, you called for her release in the past, I believe. I mean, it’s – this is something that’s happened again now.
MR KIRBY: Yeah, again, I think I’m going to leave it just where I did for today.
QUESTION: All right.
MR KIRBY: Thanks, everybody.
QUESTION: Okay. And then on Bahrain, I’m just wondering if you have had any conversations with the Bahraini officials about the detention of this human rights activist that we spoke about yesterday, whether you have asked – specifically asked them for her release.
MR KIRBY: I don’t have anything additional to say from yesterday. Obviously, this is – these sorts of issues are issues we have raised in the past with Bahraini officials. We’ll continue to do that, but I don’t have anything specific to read out with this – on this case.
QUESTION: All right, thank you.
MR KIRBY: Thanks, everybody.
QUESTION: Okay. Two. The answer that Kirby gave yesterday on Bahrain and the detention of this woman activist and her child has elicited some disappointment from human rights groups, advocates, who would like to see the U.S. be stronger on calling on the Bahrainis to release this woman. Do you have anything more to say than what you said yesterday? Are you, in fact, calling for the Bahrainis to release her?
MR TONER: What we’re strongly urging is for them to follow due process in this case in particular and abide by their commitments to transparent judicial proceedings.
QUESTION: So you don’t think she should be released immediately?
MR TONER: Again, what we’d like to see is just due process carried out here in a transparent fashion. And we’re obviously monitoring her case closely.
QUESTION: Can you say why you don’t think that she should be released? I mean, do you think that there’s some – that there’s a possibility that the detention is legitimate and that charges she might face are warranted? I guess I just don’t understand —
MR TONER: Yeah, sure.
QUESTION: — why in previous cases —
MR TONER: Sure, sure, sure. I understand what you’re saying.
QUESTION: — you guys have called for detainees to be released and in this one you’re not.
MR TONER: I mean, without getting into a legal discussion, she has had charges leveled against her. So it’s really incumbent on the Bahraini judicial system or legal system to obviously give her – afford her due process. That’s what is our focus is on.
QUESTION: And you have confidence that that can happen?
MR TONER: We’re going to continue to watch the case very closely and let them know if we believe it’s not being carried out.
QUESTION: That sounds like a no to me. Moving on.
QUESTION: Over the course of the past couple days, I’ve asked several times about two – the cases of two – or two different cases, one in Bahrain, one in Honduras. Are you at a point now where you’re going to be – where you’re able to call for the actual release, rather than due process and – for the rights advocate —
MR KIRBY: Nothing’s changed.
QUESTION: — who’s been detained in Bahrain?
MR KIRBY: Nothing’s changed —
QUESTION: So you’re still – you still believe that she can get a fair trial?
MR KIRBY: We continue to call on Bahrain to follow due process in all cases —
QUESTION: All right.
MR KIRBY: — and to abide by its commitment to transparent judicial proceedings.
The US government’s vociferous condemnation of political imprisonment in enemy states like Russia greatly overshadows its paltry comments on politically imprisonment in allied states like Bahrain.
For comparison, here is the statement of US Ambassador to the UN Samantha Power “on Russia’s Continued Detention and Trial of Nadiya Savchenko”:
Nadiya Savchenko, a former Ukrainian pilot and current member of Ukraine’s parliament, was abducted in eastern Ukraine on June 17, 2014 and taken across the border to Russia, where she remains detained on baseless charges. Today, in spite of a “dry” hunger strike in which she has not had any food or liquid for nearly a week, Savchenko took the stand to deliver her closing statement in a farcical trial.
Russia’s continued detention of Savchenko demonstrates blatant disregard for its commitments under the Minsk agreements. Savchenko – as well as all Ukrainians who are being held illegally by separatists and by Russia – should be free.
Twice I’ve had the honor of meeting Maria Savchenko, Nadiya’s mother. She has had to follow from afar the harrowing accounts of her daughter’s health deteriorating in prison, with no idea when she might be freed, or worse, whether she might die. In a video statement she released yesterday, Maria said, “I’m so nervous, I forgot what it’s like to sleep.”
Yesterday marked Nadiya Savchenko’s 600th day of wrongful imprisonment. She belongs back in Ukraine, working alongside her colleagues in the Rada to build a better future for her country. We call on Russia to release her at once.
As leading Bahraini human rights activist Maryam al-Khawaja told me for my Salon report, the US has “all that rhetoric about democracy and human rights, but unfortunately they don’t apply it to their allies.”
She added: “When it comes to their allies, it becomes empty rhetoric.”