In or Out of Prison, Bahraini HRDs Face Hard Times

The situation of human rights defenders and activists in Bahrain is precarious. Today, one of the most prominent of these activists, Zainab al-Khawaja, sits in a prison cell along with her infant son. She is sick with the flu and her family has been denied access to care for her or her child. Zainab al-Khawaja remains in prison six weeks after Bahraini Foreign Minister Khalid al-Khalifa promised that Bahrain would release her and her 17-month-old son on humanitarian grounds.

On 14 March 2016, Bahraini authorities arrested Zainab al-Khawaja, the operator of a popular Twitter feed @angryarabiya and a prominent face during the 2011 demonstrations, and imprisoned her with her one-year-old son in Isa Town Women’s Prison. Authorities arrested her on charges relating to freedom of expression and association, and sentenced her to three years and one month in jail.

While Zainab and her son continue to await their promised release, another prominent human rights defender shows what life is like after such a pardon. In January 2015, Bahraini authorities sentenced Nabeel Rajab, President of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, to six months in prison for criticizing the government on social media, and in April 2015 had arrested him over more tweets documenting torture in Bahrain’s prisons and for criticizing its role in contributing to civilian deaths in Yemen. Rajab had previously been the subject of multiple arbitrary detentions. Following international pressure, on 13 July 2015 Bahrain’s King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa issued a royal pardon calling on Nabeel’s release. The same day, the public prosecution imposed a travel ban upon him.

Because there are outstanding charges, Nabeel is under threat of being re-arrested and imprisoned for over ten years if he criticizes the government or speaks out in defense of human rights. Human Rights Watch stated that, due to the travel ban, “Nabeel Rajab is not at liberty to speak his mind or to leave the country. This travel ban against Rajab is just the latest unlawful effort by Bahrain’s government to keep a critic quiet.” Nabeel’s travel ban violates his right to freedom of movement, expression, and association, and thus violates international law. The Government of Bahrain should drop all outstanding charges against Nabeel and Zainab, and restore their freedom to travel, speak and carry out their work as human rights defenders.