Maryam Al-Khawaja, a Bahraini human rights defender and acting president of the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights (BCHR) caused a buzz for Egyptians on twitter on Sunday when she was denied access inside Egypt after she had landed in Cairo International Airport.
As soon as she arrived to the airport, Al-Khawaja wrote a series of tweets explaining the incident. She had come in from Beirut to Cairo and on her way to Johannesburg to deliver a talk about Bahrain’s current affairs. Her Danish passport had been stamped when suddenly she was told she could not leave the airport.
In addition, Al-Khawaja was questioned by the police at the airport. She was forbidden from leaving, and when attempting to pry behind the reason for her being detained, she was put under observation.
Al-Khawaja was harassed by one of the airport officials who told her that he would like to “hang out with her” if she is let inside Egypt.
Eventually, she was told that the orders had come from the intelligence and their reasons were “top secret”. Al-Khawaja was also asked to sign documents which she refused to do without the presence of her lawyer Amr Imam. The lawyer was told that Al-Khawaja should leave immediately otherwise she might risk the chance of being deported to Bahrain where she is likely to be arrested. Al-Khawaja was hoping to get on her connecting flight to South Africa at 11 pm on Sunday.
On Monday morning, she sent out tweets verifying that she had made it to South Africa thanking everyone who sent her messages of support including her lawyer.
The Cairo-based “Arabic Network for Human Rights Information” (ANHRI) condemned what the airport officials did, describing it as “an oppressive and unjustified act arguing that she was on a list of people banned from entering Egypt.”
ANHRI added that Al-Khawaja was also prevented from entering the country in April but finally managed to get in after human rights groups and activists held protests that put immense pressure on the authorities. ANHRI said that banning Al-Khawaja from entering this way “takes Egypt back to the era of the ousted (Mubarak) and SCAF and gives the Egyptian revolution a bad image.” ANHRi said that such practices are oppressive and completely rejected, adding that they are reminiscent of the spiteful state security, a branch of the police known for being strictly oppressive.
Al-Khawaja, is daughter of Bahraini-Danish human rights defender and co-founder of the BCHR Abdul Hadi Al-Khawaja, who currently sits behind bars after he was sentenced by a military court to life in prison in 2011. He started a hunger strike in February which lasted 110 days ending in May in objection to the sentence.
Maryam Al-Khawaja is also the sister of Zainab Al-Khawaja, a human rights defender, who is also behind bars in Bahrain. She was arrested earlier this month and was charged with destroying government property. She is injured and her right leg rests in a cast after she was hit in the thigh by a tear gas canister fired by police.
The three Al-Khawajas were awarded the Freedom Award by Freedom House, a US based NGO which supports democracy and freedom, for their courage and dedication to human rights issues.