15 September 2016 – Rights groups yesterday wrote to the governments of 50 states urging them to publicly call for the release of Bahraini human rights defender Nabeel Rajab, who faces up to 15 years’ imprisonment for comments he made on Twitter. Last week, Bahrain brought the new charge of “defaming the state” against him, after an op-ed was published under his name in The New York Times.
The letter from 22 NGOs, including Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, urges the 50 governments to “speak out on Bahrain’s continued misuse of the judicial system to harass and silence human rights defenders, through charges that violate freedom of expression.”
Sayed Ahmed Alwadaei, Director of Advocacy, BIRD: “The Bahraini state is an enemy to the internet and free speech and must be condemned as such by the international community. Bahrain is committing a crime by prosecuting human rights defenders. A strong, clear message can save Nabeel Rajab from a 15 year prison sentence.”
Among those addressed are the governments of France, Switzerland, the United Kingdom and the United States. While the US State Department called for Nabeel Rajab’s release on 6 September, other governments have not done so. The 50 states addressed in the letter are all previous signatories of statements at the United Nations criticizing Bahrain’s ongoing human rights violations and calling for progress.
The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Prince Zeid bin Ra’ad Al-Hussein, used his opening statement at the 33rd Human Rights Council this week to raise concern over Bahrain’s harassing and arresting human rights defenders. He cautioned Bahrain: “The past decade has demonstrated repeatedly and with punishing clarity exactly how disastrous the outcomes can be when a Government attempts to smash the voices of its people, instead of serving them.”
Nabeel Rajab, the President of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, has been held in pre-trial detention since 13 June. During this time he has been held largely in solitary confinement, and his health has deteriorated as a result. Since 2011, Nabeel Rajab has faced multiple prosecutions and prison sentences for his vocal activism. He was subjected to a travel ban in 2014 and has been unable to leave the country.
In his current trial, Nabeel Rajab faces charges including “insulting a statutory body”, “insulting a neighbouring country”, and “disseminating false rumours in time of war”. These are in relation to remarks he tweeted and retweeted on Twitter in 2015 relating to torture in Bahrain’s Jaw prison and the role of the Saudi Arabian-led coalition in causing a humanitarian crisis in Yemen.
Most recently, on 5 September Rajab was charged with “deliberate dissemination of false news and spreading tendentious rumours that undermine the prestige of the state and its stature” for an op-ed he wrote to the New York Times. In it, Rajab asked the US authorities: “Is this the kind of ally America wants? The kind that punishes its people for thinking, that prevents its citizens from exercising their basic rights?”
Husain Abdulla, Executive Director, Americans for Democracy & Human Rights in Bahrain: “This has been another test for Bahrain’s attitude to free expression and it failed it once again. Bahrain has zero respect for free speech. Nabeel Rajab should never have been prosecuted, it is that simple. We want to see the international community take public action against Bahrain’s flagrant disregard of human rights.”
Bahrain was named an Enemy of the Internet by Reporters Without Border in 2014 and is a bottom scorer in Freedom House’s Freedom of the World report. Both RSF and Freedom House are signatories of today’s letter to 50 states.
Nabeel Rajab’s next court session has been set for 6 October, when he is expected to be sentenced.
NGOs and others have been urging action on Nabeel Rajab’s case since he wasimprisoned in pre-trial detention in June.
The Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy wrote to British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson on 7 September urging public action on Nabeel Rajab.
On 2 September, 34 NGOs wrote a letter to the King of Bahrain calling for Nabeel Rajab’s release.
In August, as part of an initiative organised by Index on Censorship, leading writers wrote a letter to British Prime Minister Theresa May asking the UK government to call on Bahrain, their ally, to release Nabeel Rajab. They included playwright David Hare, author Monica Ali, comedian Shazia Mirza, MP Keir Starmer and Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka.