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Bahrain Centre for Human Rights – by KNiethammer

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The Bahrain Centre for Human Rights is a Bahrain-based NGO led by its President, Abdulhadi Al Khawaja, who is described by the Centre in an article it has published on its website as an “admirer of Ayatollah Khomeini[1]. Also, the brother of Salah Al-Khawaja, who is the Vice President of the Islamic Action Society; Layla Dashti sits on the board of both the BCHR and the Islamic Action Society. Other members of the Centre are on record of stating their admiration for Iranian spiritual leader Ayatollah Khomeini and several members were exiled in Iran.




Although the group refers to “human rights” in its title, it has been described in a study by Katja Niethammer of the Institute for International and Security Affairs as the “most radical opposition group currently found in Bahrain”, with the activists involved having “chosen to operate as an NGO – although with political goals”[1].

The centre was given a dissolution order after its president Abdulhadi Al Khawaja was arrested in September 2004 for calling for the death of the country’s Prime Minister, Shaikh Khalifah ibn Sulman Al Khalifah, using language that incited hatred[2] at a public seminar. In November 2005 a court sentenced Al Khawaja to one year in prison on charges which included “inciting hatred” under provisions prescribed by the 1976 Penal Code. However, later on the same day, ‘Abdul Hadi Al-Khawaja was released after the King issued a decree exempting him from spending the rest of his sentence in prison. Although its license was revoked, members of the centre have remained active and the group recently launched its own English-language website.

According to its own publicity, the BCHR is a loose coalition of members with different backgrounds and political leanings, and different areas of interest or focus. Some are closely associated with the Islamic Action Society, a small radical Islamist party in Bahrain which is said to have been formed by members of the Iranian-backed Islamic Front for the Liberation of Bahrain following their return from exile, and others take a more secular approach in their work, while others still work solely on an issue-basis without any overriding political leaning.

The group states it works by campaigning on, and documenting / releasing reports on local issues including the targeting of human rights defenders or political activists targeting, the detention of Bahraini citizens after a series of demonstrations with began with the brief arrest of a prominent local Shia cleric by security officers at Bahrain International Airport on his return, the detention of more than 500 men – including six Bahrainis – at Guantanamo Bay detainment camp, migrant workers conditions and rights of migrant workers, restrictive local laws, torture and abuse of an unknown number of citizens during a period of local unrest in the 1990s (see: Torture in Bahrain and 1990s Uprising in Bahrain), and women’s rights.

It describes its vision as “a prosperous democratic country free of discrimination and other violations of human rights” and says its mission is to “encourage and support individuals and groups to be proactive in the protection of their own and others’ rights; and to struggle to promote democracy and human rights in accordance with international norms” based on four objectives:

  • Promoting freedoms and basic rights (civil, political and economic)
  • Combating racial discrimination
  • Dissemination of human rights culture
  • Contributing in providing support and protection for victims and the vulnerable

Yet many of its critics believe that the Centre only has one agenda in mind and that is to divise both Shia and Sunni sects within the Kingdom. This is based on the centres main focus and normal activities which include organizing riots and violent demonstrations usually within the lines of Ashura Festivities.

There seems to be a fundamental lack of trust among the three main human rights groups in Bahrain (see Relationship with Bahrain human rights groups/activists for more details), the Bahrain Human Rights Society, the Centre and the Bahrain Human Rights Watch Society. The groups often fail to back a cause being championed by the other which has fragmented important campaigns such as work for fair legal proceedings for the Bahraini detainees at Guantanamo Bay, or otherwise work on the same issue separately. The Centre is largely viewed as taking a credible but largely oppositional stance, while the Bahrain Human Rights Society is seen as less confrontational with the government over issues, and the Bahrain Human Rights Watch Society seen as basically an unofficial government body (its members include members of the unelected Shura Council.


‘Great man’ Ayatollah Khomeini

The relationship between the Centre and Islamism has raised questions about the Centre’s relationship with the values to which it states it is committed.

  • President Abdulhadi Al Khawaja is an open admirer of Ayatollah Khomeini[3], whose regime oversaw gross human rights violations in which thousands were killed, including many human rights activists.
  • Mr Al Khawaja is the former head of the Islamic Front for the Liberation of Bahrain’s subsidiary, the “Bahrain Human Rights Organisation”[4]. The Islamic Front was an Iran-based organisation/front for Iranian intelligence behind the 1981 failed coup d’etat in Bahrain, that sought to bring about theocratic rule under a charismatic cleric.
  • The Centre’s Zainab Al Khawaja, (who is Abdulhadi’s daughter), has used her blog to describe Khomeini, as a ‘great man’ and the ‘reason for the [Iranian] revolution’s success’[5].
  • Only one member of the Centre has contested parliamentary elections: in 2006, Zahra Al Muradi, stood (unsuccessfully) for the Islamic Action Society[6] on a platform to run Bahrain according to Sharia Law. Ms Muradi, despite being a member of the Islamic Action Society, is also a member of another Islamist group, Al Wefaq Islamic Action [7], which has called for the introduction of legislation to restrict women’s employment and force female public sector workers into early retirement.
  • Salah Al Khawaja, brother of Abdulhadi Al Khawaja, was formerly the Vice President of the Islamic Action Society.

Utilitarian philosophy

The Centre’s Zainab Al Khawaja defence of human rights abuses by the Iranian government is based on the Utilitarian argument that the abuses were necessary in order for the Islamic Revolution to survive[8]. The invocation of Utilitarianism to defend human rights abuses is usually considered an unorthodox stance for human rights advocates. Zainab Al Khawaja has been a member of the Centre’s international delegations to meet such organisations as Amnesty International. She currently studies in Wisconsin.

Sectarianism and rhetorical strategies

  • According to a study by the Robert Schuman Centre for Advanced Studies of the European University Institute in Florence “The BCHR and its allies address two main audiences and hence employ two different rhetorical strategies: Pro-democracy rhetoric is mainly directed and UK and US audiences. The Bahraini audience on the other hand is addressed in sectarian terms’ [9]
  • The Robert Schuman Centre said “In stark contrast to Al Wefaq’s constant effort not to appear sectarian, the BCHR pursues the opposite strategy: while their rhetoric to international NGOs is completely consistent with Western democracy promotion parlance, the symbolism the BCHR uses inside Bahrain is overtly Shiite: even the water dispensers at the mass seminar’s venue were decorated with swords from which Hussayn’s blood dropped.” [10]
  • The 1990s uprising in Bahrain is presented in explicitly sectarian terms in the Centre’s literature, with the Sunni victims of torture and other abuses not recognised. According to a factsheet on discrimination produced by the Centre: “During the disturbances in the nineties calling for democratization, all people who were killed or injured, and all of the many thousands who were arbitrary arrested and tortured were Shi’a.”[11]

Women’s Rights

  • While the Centre has often stated its desire to see women’s equality, when women’s rights activists launched a campaign to introduce a unified personal status law to give women equal rights in divorce, the Centre lined up alongside Bahrain’s main Islamist parties in opposition to the move. The Centre’s Nabeel Rajab argued that any new legislation must respect the rights of ‘religious communities’ [12], a stance that has been criticised as standing in contrast to human rights norms which give primacy to individual rights over group rights. Moreover, it was pointed out that by introducing the concept of ‘religious communities’, in practical terms this would implicitly give power to those considered the leaders of these communities, i.e. clerics.
  • In September 2005, the Centre turned its attention towards Bahrain’s women’s rights activists and trade unionists who were criticised for not doing enough to assist abused foreign maids. In response, liberals noted that while women’s activists were being condemned, the Centre failed to speak out against religious extremist clerics whose use of language had been blamed for providing legitimacy for the sexual abuse of house maids.


  • Abdulhadi Khawaja appeared on Hezbollah‘s Al Manar TV on 12 March 2006 to allege that the Bahrain government had abducted two missing girls. The girls were in fact staying with relatives and the girls’ family expressed their “exasperation” at his spreading of false information about the family[13]. The girls’ cousin, Fadhel Hussain, said “I don’t know where he got this information from. He claims to be a human rights activist but he has hurt us and failed to respect our human rights”[14].

Relationship with Bahrain human rights groups/activists

  • The Centre has consistently criticised Bahrain’s main human rights group, the Bahrain Human Rights Society. According to the BHRS’s head, Dr Sabika al-Najjar, the Centre has sought to portray them as “government stooges”. [15]
  • The original Left-wing co-founders of the Centre such as Abd al-Aziz Abul allege that they were forced out by Mr Al Khawaja and his circle [16].

Links with terrorism

Links with neoconservatives

  • The Centre’s activists have recently developed close relations with Washington-based neoconservatives. Both Abdulhadi Khawaja and Nabeel Rajab in 2007 spoke at the American Enterprise Institute and have been feted by the Institute’s Vice President Danielle Pletka (who was previously criticised for her promotion of the Iraqi opposition leader and alleged Iranian spy, Ahmed Chalabi).


  • The Centre does not make public the sources of its funding, and it is not known how it finances the upkeep of its activists, the group’s activities, publications and international delegations. For instance, Abdulhadi Al Khawaja’s only known employment since the 1970s was with the Iranian intelligence-financed[2] Islamic Front for the Liberation of Bahrain, although he is able to afford to send his children to be educated in the United States, with one daughter attending the private Beloit College (course fees 2007-8 $36,316 for domestic students[20]).


  1. ^ Castles Built on Sand. Bahrain Centre for Human Rights. Retrieved on 200709-08.
  2. ^ The International Politics of the Middle East by Raymond Hinnebusch, 2003, Manchester University Press, p194

See also

External links