MANAMA, Bahrain — There is a long history of abuses of human rights in Bahrain. The suppression of peaceful protestors, lack of freedom to assembly or freedom of speech and jailing of Shia clerics for sit-ins are continuously condemned by nations and human rights organizations alike.
In 2016, Amnesty International released a statement calling for Bahraini authorities to “halt immediately their heightened crackdown on peaceful critics” after the detention of “scores of protesters.” Travel bans placed on activists, preventing them from leaving the Persian Gulf kingdom, were also condemned in the release.
A long-time defender of human rights in Bahrain received a two-year prison sentence last month for “disseminating false news, statements and rumors about the internal situation of the kingdom that would undermine its prestige and status.”
Nabeel Rajab, 52, was found guilty in absentia, having been in the hospital since April due to complications from a back surgery. Despite hospital records saying Rajab would be unable to attend his hearings, and the objections of lawyers and diplomats from the U.S., U.K. and Australia, the High Court in Manama ruled against him.
Rajab, who is president of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, will also stand trial in August for tweets criticizing Saudi Arabia’s involvement in the Yemen conflict, which has claimed many civilian lives. If convicted, he faces 15 more years in prison, a claim that the Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy corroborates.
Rajab led pro-democracy demonstrations in 2011 when political discontent erupted in Bahrain as part of the larger Arab Spring. Rajab’s current charges stem mainly from past Twitter posts, in which he accuses Bahraini prisons of torture, as well as giving television interviews criticizing the state of human rights in Bahrain.
“Imprisoning Nabeel Rajab simply for sharing his opinion is a flagrant violation of human rights and an alarming sign that the Bahraini authorities will go to any length to silence criticism,” said Salil Shetty, Secretary General of Amnesty International, which has formally called for Rajab’s release.
“Nabeel Rajab should be commended for shedding light on allegations of serious human rights abuses; instead, Bahrain’s government and judiciary have once again tightened their chokehold on freedom of expression and branded him a criminal. No one should be jailed for speaking out about human rights,” said Shetty.
In December 2016, a number of organizations penned letters to 50 nations, asking them to call for Rajab’s immediate release from prison––this happening after Rajab had already languished in solitary confinement for months.
In 2012, Rajab received the Freedom of Expression Award by the Free Speech Organization Index on Censorship. His illumination of the abuse of human rights in Bahrain has led him in and out of prison since around the same time.
Bahrain has been a U.S. ally in the Middle East for quite some time. During former U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s visit to Bahrain, Rajab met with Kerry, knowing that the U.S. opinion on human rights would hold some weight with Bahrain due to the alliance. They talked about the “difficult situation” regarding human rights in Bahrain.
The chief of the cyber crimes unit for Bahrain’s Interior Ministry interrogated Rajab, wanting to know the exact details of Rajab’s talk with Kerry.
As revealed in a 2016 letter to the New York Times written from prison, the same official interrogated Rajab again in April 2016. Rajab claims this interrogation was because of a letter he signed, along with 25 other activists, asking President Obama to “discuss human rights and the plight of activists in the middle east.”
He went to prison in June. Since that time, Rajab spent nine months in solitary confinement and several months in the hospital. He is faced with numerous charges, all for statements, interviews, tweets and other matters of free expression. While he has been given two years of prison time so far, he faces a possible 15 more in August.
The good news for Rajab is that the U.S. State Department, under current Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, has expressed discontent with his recent sentencing.
“We believe societies are strengthened, not threatened, by expressions of opinion and dissent, and that opposition voices can play a vital role helping societies become more tolerant and inclusive,” said a U.S. state department statement following the sentence.
According to Rajab, “there are some 4,000 political prisoners in Bahrain, which has the highest prison population per capita in the Middle East. This is a country that has subjected its people to imprisonment, torture and even death for daring to desire democracy.”
– David McLellan