Human rights and democracy advocates have expressed shock and indignation at a three-year prison sentence against a prominent Bahraini opposition activist for anti-government activities.
The “unexpectedly stiff sentence against Nabeel Rajab (right) will raise questions about the Western-backed Sunni monarchy’s commitment to reform,” AP reports, “and embolden anti-government protesters who have been demonstrating the past 18 months for greater rights in the Gulf island kingdom, home to the U.S. Navy’s 5th fleet.”
“You can jail me for 3 years or 30 years, but I will not back down or retreat (from my human rights work),” Rajab said after the sentences were read out, according to his son.
“Even those of us who have followed Bahrain’s violent crackdown on human rights are shocked by today’s move,” said Brian Dooley of Human Rights First. “It’s a breathtakingly bad decision, showing that the regime’s rhetoric about reform and reconciliation is a sham. The charges are patently politically-motivated, and designed to silence him. He has consistently called for protests to be peaceful, and there is no justification for his jailing.”
Rajab is the president of the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights and director of the Gulf Center for Human Rights. Both groups condemned today’s sentence “in the strongest terms.”
The groups called on the Obama administration and the European Union to demand the immediate release of Rajab, his fellow human rights defenders Nabeel Abdulhadi Alkhawaja and Zainab Alkhawaja, and all other prisoners of conscience.
The US and EU should “pressure the Bahraini government “to guarantee in all circumstances that all human rights defenders in Bahrain are able to carry out their legitimate human rights activities without fear of reprisals, and free of all restrictions including judicial harassment.”
EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton expressed “concern” at the sentence, adding that she expected Rajab’s case to be reconsidered in the appeal process.
“Fair and impartial justice is a key requirement to overcome the current challenges in Bahrain,” she added, urging “all components of Bahraini society to contribute to dialogue and national reconciliation in a peaceful and constructive manner, without further delays.”
The sentence is “an outrageous violation of the right of freedom of expression” and “a further stain on the international reputation of the government of Bahrain, and it will not go unnoticed by the United States government, Congress, and people, “said Carl Gershman, president of the National Endowment for Democracy.
“Nabeel is a deeply respected human rights defender with many friends in the United States and in the international community more generally,” he said. “We will continue to protest his arrest and to insist on his release, along with the release of all other prisoners of conscience in Bahrain.”
In 2011 Rajab received the Ion Ratiu Democracy Award in recognition of his efforts “tirelessly and at considerable personal peril to advance the cause of democratic freedoms and the civil rights of Bahraini citizens”.
Rajab is also vice president of the Paris-based International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), which condemned the sentence and called for his immediate release.
“Arbitrarily imprisoning human rights defenders will not stop the people from aspiring to freedom and democratic change,” said FIDH president Souhayr Belhassen. “We hope that the international community will firmly condemn this decision and will call for Nabeel’s release.”
Bahrain, a U.S. ally and base for the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet, has been in turmoil since pro-democracy protests led by its Shi’ite Muslim majority erupted last year after successful revolts in Egypt and Tunisia.
Rajab is the founder of the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights and has led many protests against the wide powers of the Sunni Al Khalifa dynasty which rules the island kingdom. A hero to protesters, but villain for Bahrainis who fear the protests will bring Shi’ite Islamists to power, Rajab is already serving three months in jail over a tweet criticizing the veteran prime minister. A court said it insulted Bahrainis.
“It is a very stiff and unexpected ruling, I am surprised. They are peaceful protests, not violent ones,” said Rajab’s lawyer Mohammed al-Jishi: Others found guilty in similar cases, he said, were sentenced to a maximum of six months in jail and some were freed on bail.
Last week, several members of the US Congress wrote to the Bahraini King Hamad al-Khalifa expressing concern over Mr Rajab’s case and urging the release of “Bahrainis being held for crimes related to freedom of expression”.
Amnesty International has deemed Rajab a prisoner of conscience.
“The charade of justice has gone on too long, all prisoners of conscience must be set free immediately and unconditionally,” said Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui, the rights group’s Middle East and North Africa deputy program director.
U.S. officials have called for efforts to reopen political dialogue in Bahrain, but are careful not to press too hard against the nation’s leadership and possibly jeopardize its important military ties.
Shiites account for about 70 percent of Bahrain’s population of just over half a million people, but claim they face widespread discrimination and lack opportunities granted to the Sunni minority. The country’s leaders have offered some reforms including restoring jobs for many Shiites pushed out from their posts at the start of the uprising and giving parliament more power.
But the opposition says they fall short of Shiite demands for a greater voice in the country’s affairs and an elected government.
“The government of Bahrain is gravely mistaken if it thinks it can resist forever the legitimate desire of the people of the country for a democratic system that respects the rights of all citizens,” said the NED’s Gershman. “The sooner it recognizes the need for a democratic opening, the greater the chances will be for peace and stability. Until then, we pledge our solidarity with Nabeel and others who are unjustly imprisoned.”
The Bahrain Center for Human Rights adds:
Rajab’s family had recently written an appeal to the international community regarding his imprisonment and 19 members of US congress had signed a letter demanding that Rajab and all other political prisoners be released.
Nabeel Rajab has been targeted for his work since several years back, however as his role become more vital in the last year in reporting the severe violations to human rights in Bahrain following the crackdown on protesters, the acts of retaliation by the regime against him has increased. He was dragged from his house after midnight on March 20, 2011 by masked security forces and he was beaten and harassed while blind folded and handcuffed. His house has been attacked with tear gas bombs twice in April and May 2011 putting the lives of his family at risk, the authorities never hold the responsible accountable for these attacks. (More details: bahrainrights.org/en/node/4144). Rajab was interrogated several time about the statements he gives on twitter, including an interrogation at the military prosecution in May 2011. He was banned from travel for several months in 2011 to stop him from participating in global human rights events and meetings. The regime also made it difficult for Rajab to work and ruined his personal business. Even his family members were targeted as his children were harassed in school and his wife, was sacked from her job after a campaign of harassment so that the regime could make sure that Rajab’s only income was stopped.
However, since the beginning of 2012, the regime has moved to the practice of judicial harassments against Rajab, raising up to 5 cases against him until today, accusing him with “Participation in illegal gathering and calling for a march without prior notification”, “calling to illegal gathering over social networks”, “Insulting an official authority over twitter”, and defamation of AlMuharraq people over twitter. Rajab has been arrested and detained several times in the last few months starting May 2012 and the last arrest was on 9 July 2012. He has been convicted in all these cases by the Bahraini court and he was fined BHD 300 for insulting official authority over twitter on 28 June 2012, and received a total of 3 years and 3 months imprisonment sentences in the other cases.
For a longer history of harassment against Nabeel Rajab read this report.
The BCHR and GCHR call on the US administration as well as other governments that have influence in Bahrain including the UK government, the EU and the leading human rights organizations to:
- Call for the immediate release of human rights defenders Nabeel Rajab, Abdulhadi Alkhawaja and Zainab Alkhawaja, as well as all other prisoners of conscience.
- Increase the pressure on the Government of Bahrain to stop the ongoing daily human rights violations as well as escalating attacks on human rights defenders.
- Immediately stop all arms sales to the Government of Bahrain due to the continuous human rights violations.
- Initiate a discussion on international consequences towards the Government of Bahrain due to the continuation of human rights violations.
- Pressure the Government of Bahrain to guarantee in all circumstances that all human rights defenders in Bahrain are able to carry out their legitimate human rights activities without fear of reprisals, and free of all restrictions including judicial harassment.