10 July 2017 –The Third Circuit Lower Criminal Court today sentenced Nabeel Rajab, President of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, to two years in prison on charges solely based on his exercise of freedom of expression. The prosecution and trial, which were initiated by the Ministry of Interior’s Cyber Crime Directorate, are based on Mr. Rajab’s statements to the international media. We, the undersigned, condemn the unfair trial of Mr. Rajab and call for his immediate release.

Unfair Trial

Police arrested Mr. Rajab and charged him with “publishing and broadcasting false news that undermines the prestige of the state” on 13 June 2016. He has been in pre-trial detention since then, largely in solitary confinement, violating the UN Standard Minimum Rules for Non-Custodial Measures (Tokyo Rules) which state: “pre-trial detention shall be used as a means of last resort in criminal proceedings, with due regard for the investigation of the alleged offence and for the protection of society and the victim.”

Despite being arrested in relation to these charges, the prosecution did not act on these charges for nearly six months. Mr. Rajab was first prosecuted on a second set of charges related to his twitter activity, for which he faces up to 15 years in prison. In December 2016, the Higher Criminal Court agreed to grant Rajab bail in that trial, but he was immediately placed under pre-trial detention in relation to today’s charges and barred from release.

Mr. Rajab has been recovering from a surgery at the Ministry of Interior hospital since early April. His health worsened after he was initially transferred back to police custody hours after his surgery, developing an infection. His lawyers state that under the code of criminal procedure, poor health is a valid reason for a defendant to miss court. Despite this, the Lower Criminal Court has insisted to hold court hearings which Mr. Rajab is unable to attend. In all, there have been 14 court hearings, of which Mr. Rajab has been unable to attend nine.

Expression-Related Charges

The speech-suppressive nature of the proceedings is patent. A prosecution memorandum dated 14 June 2016, seen by NGOs, describes Mr. Rajab’s “crimes” as “activities damaging national interests … and infringing internal and external state security, which some individuals carry out … using social-media applications, and also programs broadcast by satellite [TV] channels.” Specifically, Rajab was guilty of “participating in television programs which were broadcast on satellite channels with the intent of disseminating false and biased news, information, and rumors detracting from the prestige and standing of the Kingdom and weakening confidence in it” between 2014 and 2016. His “goal” in exercising his freedom of expression is said to have been “to incite antipathy and contempt for the ruling system,” as well as “stirring up social divisions which lead to [civil] disturbance[s],” and “to detract from the good name, prestige, and standing of the Kingdom.”

The charges and prosecution of Nabeel Rajab constitute a violation of his freedom of expression, as guaranteed under Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which Bahrain acceded with no reservations in 2006. “Speech crimes” of this sort do not exist under international law, on the basic understanding that speech is not a crime. Criminalization of expression is barred under Article 19.2 of the ICCPR.

Without irony, prosecution papers seen by NGOs state that Mr. Rajab is being prosecuted for stating that the Bahraini government “derogates from freedom of opinion and of expression.” Bahrain’s prosecution has treated Mr. Rajab as a criminal for speech acts such as: “accusing the ruling system in the Kingdom of following a policy of repression” and of “arresting those opposed to the regime”; or alleging “the commission by responsible [government] bodies of crimes of killing and torture.” In the prosecution’s account Mr. Rajab has also made statements accusing the Bahraini government of “evasion of responsibility”; engaging in “sectarianism”; and “suppressing opposition and violating international agreements and covenants.”

Though speaking accurately is not a prerequisite for exercising freedom of speech, there is also the interesting fact that most of the statements the prosecution enumerates against Rajab are demonstrably true, e.g.:

  • “There are people who have alleged that they were subjected to ill treatment and torture.” The UN Committee Against Torture recently found: “There continue to be numerous and consistent allegations of widespread torture and ill-treatment of persons who are deprived of their liberty in all places of detention.”
  • “There are organizations which are denied entry [to Bahrain].” The Government of Bahrain has repeatedly barred entry for UN observers, including the Special Rapporteur on Torture. More recently, a Human Rights Watch researcher was barred from entering Bahrain.
  • “The climate in Bahrain is not considered conducive to human rights work in a healthy or transparent way.” Human rights defenders continue to be under threat: as well as Nabeel Rajab, women’s rights defender Ebtisam Al-Sayegh is currently in pre-trial detention, and was tortured and sexually abused in May.
  • “Al Wefaq … [and] the leaders of the opposition” chose “non-participation” in recent elections “and now the authorities are taking revenge on them for this.” The Bahraini government dissolved Al Wefaq in June last year. In May 2017, the Government dissolved Waad, the last major opposition society.

International Responses

The UK Foreign & Commonwealth Office said in April that they have “raised concerns over the case of Nabeel Rajab” at “senior levels” of the Bahraini government. In June, 36 members of the European Parliament urged the European Union to call for Rajab’s release. The EU’s Special Representative for Human Rights stated ahead of today’s sentencing that he “wish[es] for [Rajab’s] prompt release.”

On 6 July, the US State Department said Washington “continue[s] to be very concerned about” Nabeel Rajab’s trial and “about freedom of expression,” even recalling the “closure of a newspaper … not too long ago” in Bahrain – referring to al-Wasat, Bahrain’s only independent paper, suspended in June.

Earlier this year, the Trump administration lifted conditions on the sale of arms to Bahrain which included the release of Nabeel Rajab.

Husain Abdulla, Executive Director of Americans for Democracy & Human Rights in Bahrain, comments: “The Bahraini government perceives it can act with impunity and is attempting to silence every critic. These actions are a clear challenge to the US, UK, and other allies to test how far the government can go without strong reproach. The question now is will the international community react, or will it allow these and further human rights violations to pass unchecked.”

Sayed Ahmed Alwadei, Director of Advocacy, Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy: “It’s not only Nabeel Rajab: This outrageous sentence against someone speaking the truth exhibits the brutality of the Bahraini government and its heinous crimes and that of its kangaroo court. This shames Bahrain’s rulers and happens because the Al Khalifa feel there will be no consequences for their brutal abuses.”

We, the undersigned organizations, condemn today’s verdict and call for the immediate and unconditional release of Nabeel Rajab and all political prisoners.

Signed,

Americans for Democracy & Human Rights in Bahrain

Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy

European Centre for Democracy and Human Rights