DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — A daughter of a long-detained human rights activist in Bahrain tried to return to the island kingdom on Friday to press for her father’s release but was turned away from her flight in London.
Maryam al-Khawaja was accompanied by a phalanx of other activists, including the secretary-general of Amnesty International, Agnès Callamard, seeking to prevent authorities from immediately detaining her.
But before she could board her British Airways flight, she said she was prevented from checking in as Bahraini immigration officials told the airline not to allow her on the plane.
Her attempted trip came as her father, 62-year-old Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, has resumed a hunger strike to protest the conditions of his yearslong imprisonment on internationally criticized charges stemming from him leading 2011 Arab Spring demonstrations in Bahrain.
The attempt also renews pressure on Denmark, where both al-Khawajas have citizenship, and the United States, which signed a new defense understanding with Bahrain this week during a trip to Washington by the island nation’s crown prince.
“So we tried to check in here at the BA counter and we were told that they are not allowed to board us despite my being a Bahraini citizen,” Maryam al-Khawaja said in a video message, holding her red Bahraini passport and flanked by activists.
“It’s incredibly disappointing as this could have been — may have been — my last chance to see my dad,” she added.
Bahrain’s government said in a statement it “reserves the right to refuse entry, if deemed necessary.” It did not elaborate though it earlier said that ”individuals who are convicted in a court of law are subject to legal proceedings and due process” when asked about Maryam al-Khawaja’s planned trip.
British Airways, responding to questions about the activists being stopped from the flight, said: “All airlines are legally obliged to comply with immigration control laws and entry requirements for customers as set by individual countries.”
Activists criticized the decision.
“Denying Maryam and us the chance to travel to Bahrain will not silence us,” the rights group Front Line Defenders, which also sent a representative for the flight, said. “We will double our efforts to call on all those in the international community to urge and push Bahraini authorities to do the right thing, and free Abdulhadi al-Khawaja and other unjustly imprisoned” activists.
In the last month, hundreds of prisoners at the Jaw Rehabilitation and Reform Center in Bahrain, which also holds Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, went on a hunger strike to protest the conditions of their detention.
It marked one of the largest demonstrations against Bahrain’s Al Khalifa royal family in the decade since it, along with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, violently put down the Arab Spring protests. The Sunni Al Khalifa family has ruled over the majority Shiite island in the Persian Gulf since 1783.
The prisoners suspended their hunger strike during this week’s visit to Washington by Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa, though al-Khawaja resumed his over reportedly being denied access to health care ahead of his daughter’s attempted trip.
Mary Lawlor, the U.N. special rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, separately said Friday she remained concerned about al-Khawaja’s case and those of two others detained.
“Medical negligence and lack of adequate care has left them in a worrying state,” Lawlor said. “Both their detention and the ill-treatment they have suffered in prison violate the rights to free expression, opinion and assembly that must be guaranteed to human rights defenders.”
Bahrain has insisted that Abdulhadi al-Khawaja and others have received proper medical care in custody.
It remains unclear what would have happened to Maryam al-Khawaja if she had made it to Bahrain. She still faces a variety of charges on the island, including what she described as unclear terrorism charges that could carry a life sentence.
During Prince Salman’s trip to Washington, he signed a new defense and technology agreement with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken. He also met U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin.
Bahrain, considered by the U.S. to be a major non-NATO ally, hosts the U.S. Navy’s Mideast-based 5th Fleet, which patrols the region’s waterways and often has tense encounters with Iran. Bahrain has also diplomatically recognized Israel in recent years.
The new U.S.-Bahrain agreement, which was reached without going to Congress and becoming a formal treaty, calls for the two countries to meet and plan responses to “any external aggression or threat of external aggression.” Bahrain has long had tense relations with Iran, which even under Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi sought to claim the island.
“The strengthened rhetoric about Washington’s response to an attack on Bahrain will likely help Manama feel more assured, especially when it comes to Bahraini concerns over Iran and its intentions toward Bahrain,” an analysis from the Eurasia Group said. “However, beyond strengthened security rhetoric, the agreement does not appear to offer Bahrain many tangible new security or economic benefits.”
Bahrain meanwhile called the agreement a sign of the “close and enduring security partnership between Bahrain and the United States.”
But human rights issues remain just under the surface. On Thursday, State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller acknowledged Blinken brought up al-Khawaja’s case and others in his meeting with Prince Salman.
“He raised human rights concerns and made clear that human rights are a pillar of our policy across the Middle East and North Africa,” Miller said.
“As is true with a number of countries, we have the ability to work together on things where we can advance cooperation but still raise where we have concerns,” he added.
Associated Press writers Matthew Lee in Washington and Alberto Pezzali in London contributed to this report.