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Mirziya Maryam Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja (Arabic: مريم عبد الهادي الخواجة) was born on the 26th of June 1987 in Syria. A human rights activist she is the daughter of the prominent Bahraini human rights defender Abdulhadi al-Khawaja and head of the foreign relations office and vice president for the Bahrain Center for Human Rights. Maryam was born in Syria to Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, who had been banned from Bahrain since the mid-1980s and Sayyida Khadija Almousawi. At the age of two her family was granted political asylum in Denmark, where they lived until 2001, when they were allowed re-entry into Bahrain. After graduating from the University of Bahrain in 2009, Maryam spent a year in the United States on a Fulbright scholarship at Brown University. When she returned to Bahrain in mid-2010, however, she was unable to find work in public relations or education due to her father's reputation as a government critic. Instead she joined the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, co-founded by her father, where she runs the foreign relations office, is vice president serving as acting president during BCHR's president, Nabeel Rajab periods of detention. On the 22nd of June 2011, Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, Maryam’s father, was sentenced to life imprisonment in a military court on the charge of "organizing and managing a terrorist organization" for his role in the pro-democracy Bahraini uprising in 2011-2012.
Maryam Alkhawaja has been active in participating in protests and volunteering for human rights organizations since she was a young teenager. She also worked as a fixer and translator for journalists who came to Bahrain to report on the political and human rights situation there. In 2006, Maryam was part of the delegation that went to the UN building in New York and met with the Secretary General’s assistant to hand over the mass petition of demanding that the Prime Minister resign, due to his human rights violations. In 2008, Maryam was invited by the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission to testify in the US Congress about religious freedom in Bahrain. The government led a smear campaign in the media against the group of activists that spoke at this session including Maryam, and their case was adopted by organizations such as Frontline, OMCT and FIDH. After attending the early pro-democracy demonstrations in 2011, Maryam Al-Khawaja embarked on an overseas speaking tour at colleges and conferences. During this tour, she held meetings with United Kingdom politicians and spoke to the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva. With Nabeel Rajab being prevented from leaving Bahrain, problems of access for the external media and at least 500 leading members of the opposition being detained, Maryam assumed a prominent public role outside Bahrain.
According to Joe Stork of Human Rights Watch, BCHR recommended that she stay abroad given the likelihood of her arrest if she returned. In April, she paricipated in the U.S.-Islamic World Forum, where she was able to speak to Secreatary of State Hillary Clinton and tell the story of her father and two brothers in-law arrests. She implored Clinton to have the United States to take a stronger stance against the oppression in Bahrain, and cited the Bahraini government's use of American weapons to suppress the protesters, as a reason for the United States make this commitment. In May, she spoke to the Oslo Freedom Forum about her experiences with government violence in Bahrain, including the killing of student protestors, the torture of democracy advocates, the "disappearances" of human rights defenders, and the cooperation of Saudi Arabian troops. On 13 May, she gave evidence to a U.S. Congress hearing on Human Rights in Bahrain. Before the Bahraini uprising, Maryam had not been active on Twitter and at the time had no more than 30 followers. As of 15 June, she now has more than 65,000 followers and has sent more than 18,000 tweets providing real-time coverage of various protests often overlooked by many formal news agencies. As demonstrators flooded the streets, she stayed for days on end in Manama's Pearl Roundabout actively tweeting about government abuses.
Maryam has faced internet harassment from regime supporters. She did not attend the IFEX General Meeting and Strategy Conference in Beirut in early June after receiving death threats. Immediately after her speech to the Oslo Freedom Forum, which was streamed live online, a Twitter campaign began, accusing her of being an extremist, a liar, and a servant of Iran. The Oslo Freedom Forum's email account was bombarded with multiple copies of a message portraying Maryam Al-Khawaja as an enemy of the Bahraini people and a "traitor." Much of the tweeting, blogging and online harassment has originated in the U.S., inside the Geo-Political Solutions division of Qorvis Communications. The campaign has also included apparently organized heckling. According to FIDH, in early May 2011, an anonymous smear campaign was launched against Nabeel Rajab and Maryam al-Khawaja with the active support of the Bahraini authorities. Maryam recieved an award given to her father and sister - detained human rights activist Abdulhadi and fellow activist Zainab by a US human rights organisation. In her speech, Maryam read a letter from Zainab:
"We suffer on the path to freedom, so that someday we can live without suffering, with our rights and dignity."
In a series of clashes with security forces in the Gulf state of Bahrain that began soon after morning prayers in Shi'ite villages that ring the capital, Maryam al-Khawaja was with about 100 protesters at the village of Diraz. According to Maryam:
"Everything looked very peaceful because the riot police were standing on the other side of the road. Nobody suspected anything and people were holding the Bahrainian flag and chanting things like 'We demand a constitution written by the people' or 'We demand things like an elected prime minister' and other stuff like that. And all of a sudden out of nowhere and with no prior warning whatsoever we suddenly see them running towards us and they start shooting rubber bullets, sound bombs and shotguns. The people started running and then the minute the riot police stopped attacking the people started coming out again and started chanting - 'Peaceful, peaceful' meaning that they're being peaceful so they shouldn't be attacking them."
"But they kept attacking them again and again. Every single time the people would come back out they would attack them again in the same way - in the same violent way, despite their chant that we're peaceful. I saw many who were vomiting because of the tear gas. Another woman fell and had to be taken to the hospital. It was pretty bad and even the foreign journalists were actually very, very surprised that this took place."
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