How do you solve a problem like Maryam?

The Bahraini government faces a tricky choice in the coming days as it weighs the political price of jailing leading human rights defender Maryam Al Khawaja.

Based abroad for the last few years, Maryam has been a leading advocate against the regime’s human rights abuses. In the early morning hours of Saturday, August 30, she was arrested on a trip back to Bahrain, where authorities must now decide if it’s best to face the condemnation of locking her up for a long time or better to have her return to the international political circuit where she so brilliantly exposes their false claims of reform.

Maryam told me on Thursday that she wanted to go back to Bahrain and see her dad, who’s on hunger strike in prison. She knew there were risks since she’s been regularly targeted by the Bahraini authorities since she left the kingdom in 2011. She was hopeful though since her visit there in January 2013 didn't result in her arrest.

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She was not so lucky this time. When Maryam landed in Bahrain, the police were waiting for her. She’s been detained since, facing charges of assaulting police officers at the airport during the confiscation of her phone (a charge she denies) and possibly other offenses.
For more than three years, Maryam has been a thorn in the Bahrain government’s side, or perhaps more accurate a description is a constant jab to the kingdom's throat. She is about the most effective international critic of Bahrain's brutal crackdown on human rights defenders. She's kept the issue of Bahrain's human rights abuses on the agenda by crisscrossing the globe on behalf of the Gulf Center for Human Rights and the Bahrain Center for Human Rights. She educates government officials, journalists, activists and anyone who’ll listen about the crackdown against pro-democracy protesters since February 2011.

I’ve worked Maryam on various stages of that journey – in Washington and New York, Cairo and Tunis, Dublin and Geneva. I have never seen an activist lobby better than she does. She’s 27, smart, articulate, driven, funny, always prepared and constantly busy. She’s presented Bahrain’s abuses to the U.S. Congress more effectively than anyone else I know. The annoying cheep-cheep text alert on her phone never stops as she fields calls from reporters, gets updates from a dizzying network of sources in the Gulf, and checks in with her family and friends back in Bahrain.

Maryam's expertise is not surprising. Her father Abdulhadi is sentenced to life in prison for his part in the peaceful protests and is currently hunger striking to draw attention to the widespread problem of arbitrary arrests. Her older sister Zainab spent most of last year in jail, too, for nonviolent dissent against the regime and faces further charges in the coming weeks.

The Bahrain government, largely controlled by a ruling family, has a decision to make. While there are no doubt those in the regime who would be happy to see Maryam locked away for a long time, unable to advocate in person at the United Nations, the U.S. State Department, the European Parliament or anywhere else, there would be a high political price to jailing her. Her arrest is making headlines and Maryam's impressive range of contacts in dozens of countries have already mobilized to put pressure on the Bahrain authorities to release her. Putting her in prison would make her more famous still, bringing fresh attention to the country’s human rights problems and ongoing political unrest.  When her colleague Nabeel Rajab was jailed for two years, his reputation and authority grew. He emerged from jail in May of this year a stronger, more influential figure than ever. The same would likely happen if Maryam were to be jailed.

Some in Bahrain will see jailing or freeing Maryam as a lose-lose proposition for the government and perhaps it is. But what would really shut her up is genuine human rights reform, removing the basis for her complaints. Despite several years of promises, the core problems remain in Bahrain – impunity for torture and other abuses, the jailing of political dissidents and a lack of power sharing by the ruling elite. Until the Bahrain government takes steps toward genuine human rights reform, the regime won’t be able to silence the influence of Maryam, and others like her, inside or out of jail.

Dooley is director of the Human Rights Defenders program at Human Rights First @dooley_dooley.

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