Maryam al - Khawaja

Hugh Tomlinson

A prominent Bahraini human rights activist has been arrested over her campaign to highlight repression in the Gulf kingdom, after claiming that the royal family was complicit in torture.

Maryam al - Khawaja, 27, was seized on arrival at Bahrain’s international airporton Saturdayand charged with insulting King Hamad bin Isa al - Khalifa on social media. Her arrest will again shine a spotlight on the continued unrest in Bahrain, three years on from a violent government crackdown on pro - democracy demonstrations that left dozens of people dead.

Ms Khawaja had returned to the kingdom to visit her imprisoned father, Abdulhadi al - Khawaja, who is on hunger strike. He was jailed for life in 2011 for his role in the uprising at the height of the Arab Spring. Led by Bahrain’s Shia majority, thousands of people took to the streets to demand democratic reform from the Sunni ruling family, which sent in troops to crush the protests.

Since fleeing the kingdom in 2011, Ms Khawaja has campaigned abroad to highlight human rights abuses in the Gulf state, including allegations that the king’s son, Prince Nasser bin Hamad al - Khalifa, personally tortured protesters during the crackdown.

In May, she picketed the Royal Windsor Horse Show, where King Hamad and Prince Nasser mingled with the Queen.

The Bahraini government denies the allegations, and Prince Nasser has been granted immunity from prosecution in Britain by the Crown Prosecution Service.

Ms Khawaja and other activists are seeking to have that immunity overturned, however, with a court hearing expected in October.

Her mother, Khadija Almousawi, said yesterday that Ms Khawaja knew the risk of arrest by returning to Bahrain.

“When she heard her father’s health was suffering she felt she had to come back in case the worst happens, ” Ms Almousawi said. “She said the police were very rough with her. I don’t know if they will charge her or deport her. ”

An independent inquiry into events in 2011 uncovered systematic torture of protesters in custody by the security forces, and King Hamad pledged to carry out a root - and - branch reform in an effort to heal Bahrain’s sectarian divide.

However, as international attention has shifted to bigger, bloodier crises around the region, the government appears to have backed away from those promises, critics say. Dialogue with opposition groups to broker a political solution has collapsed and activists complain that the few reforms that have been implemented are merely cosmetic. No senior official or officer has been charged in connection with the abuses against protesters.

In Shia villages on the outskirts of the capital, Manama, anti - government protests continue almost daily, driven back by police firing tear gas. There has been an increase in violent attacks on the security forces in the past year as radical youth groups seek to fill the vacuum left by the stalled political process.

The government remains sensitive about international scrutiny of its human rights record. In July, the US State Department’s top human rights official, Tom Malinowski, was ordered to leave Bahrain when he refused to allow government minders to observe his meetings with opposition groups.

Bahrain hosts the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet, but relations with Washington have been increasingly strained since 2011, with regime hardliners unhappy at American calls for the release of political prisoners, including Mr Khawaja.