The al-Khalifa dynasty has ruled in Bahrain for over two hundred years. More recently, the Sunni-led government has struggled to quell dissent among the country’s Shia-majority population. In 2011, following weeks of anti-government demonstrations in which protesters demanded more rights and an end to discrimination against the Shia community, the Bahraini regime called in Saudi Arabian troops and imposed martial law. A brutal crackdown on free expression and assembly ensued.
Minor protests have continued, but human rights activists and members of the political opposition increasingly face arrest and judicial harassment. According to Human Rights Watch, the sheer number of prosecutions, the often vague nature of the charges, the high rate of conviction and the length of the sentences imposed raise serious concerns. Bahrain’s civilian criminal courts frequently convict defendants on trumped-up charges of terrorism for exercising their rights to freedom of expression and association.
Nabeel Rajab, president of the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights (BCHR), has been detained several times in blatant violation of his right to peaceful free expression. BCHR, founded in July 2002 as a non-profit, non-governmental organisation, is still functioning, despite being threatened with closure by the authorities.
During the protests of 2011, Rajab was repeatedly detained. In 2012, he was one of several leading activists arrested by the authorities for taking part in ‘illegal gatherings’. Amnesty International claims that he was punched in the face several times by riot police as he led a demonstration in February that year. In May 2012, Rajab was charged with ‘insulting a national institution’ after posting various tweets about the Ministry of Interior. The following month, he was sentenced to three months in jail after posting critical tweets about the prime minister. Rajab’s conviction was eventually overturned on appeal, but only after he had begun his two-year sentence for taking part in the protests. He was finally released in May 2014.
Just five months later, on 1 October 2014, Rajab was once again summoned for questioning by Bahrain’s General Directorate of Criminal Investigations. He was detained and interrogated for hours about another of his tweets. He had criticised members of the security forces who had reportedly travelled abroad to fight with ISIS supporters. His tweet suggested that security institutions in Bahrain were effectively an ‘ideological incubator’ for jihadists.
Rajab had just returned to Bahrain after attending the 27th Session of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva and the European Parliament in Brussels, as well as meetings at foreign ministries throughout Europe, and was charged with insulting public institutions under article 216 of Bahrain’s penal code. He was granted bail on 2 November 2014, but was banned from leaving the country. On 20 January this year, Rajab was sentenced to six months in prison for ‘insulting a statutory body’. He was granted bail, pending an appeal. This was initially scheduled for 5 April but has since been adjourned to 5 May.
Meanwhile, on 2 April 2015, he was arrested at his home in the capital, Manama. His house was surrounded by about twenty police cars. He was presented with a warrant accusing him of spreading false news and arrested. Rajab’s arrest is in retaliation for a recent opinion piece entitled ‘Into Bahrain’s Jaws of Hell’, published by the Huffington Post, in which he exposed ill-treatment and collective punishment in Bahrain’s Central Prison, known as Jaw Prison. According to the BCHR, the prison ‘houses upwards of 2,000 prisoners … many of them protesters and activists imprisoned for exercising their free assembly, free expression and free association’. On 10 March, a protest broke out over the treatment of prison inmates, which provoked a brutal response by the security forces. Rajab published photographs and reported on the authorities’ abuse:
Few prisoners were left unwounded by the end of the siege. Their bodies are burned by grenade explosions, their limbs broken by frequent beating, and they have been left without medical attention. Since the assault, all visitation has been suspended … In Bahrain, inmates are punished for being inmates, and punished collectively. Torture is a crime against humanity, yet it is a constant feature in Jaw.
Rajab was remanded by the public prosecutor for ‘insulting a statutory body’. He was also charged with ‘spreading rumours during wartime’ for documenting civilian deaths in Yemen, during Saudi-led airstrikes against Houthi forces in late March 2015. Part of the coalition, Bahrain sent a number of fighter jets to join the campaign. At the time, the Bahraini Ministry of Interior had prohibited any public criticism of the country’s participation by threatening to take ‘appropriate steps against individuals that put safety and security of the country at risk’. If convicted of the current charges against him, Rajab could face more than ten years in prison.
Readers might like to send appeals expressing concern that Nabeel Rajab is being held in violation of his right to freedom of expression as guaranteed by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights; calling on the government of Bahrain to immediately and unconditionally release Rajab from custody and drop all charges against him; and urging the authorities to cease all harassment of and restrictions against civil society and human rights defenders in Bahrain and to release all those currently detained solely for the peaceful exercise of their right to free expression.
Appeals to be addressed to:
Sheikh Khalid bin Ali al-Khalifa,
Minister of Justice and Islamic Affairs
Fax: 00 973 175 31 284
Her Excellency Ambassador Ms Alice Thomas Samaan
Embassy of the Kingdom of Bahrain
30 Belgrave Square
London SW1X 8QB
Fax: 020 7201 9183
Update: Jason Rezaian (LR, April 2015), the Washington Post journalist who has been held since last July by the Iranian authorities, has been charged with ‘collaborating with hostile governments’, ‘propaganda against the establishment’ and gathering information ‘about internal and foreign policy’.