**Update: On 22 February 2018, the United States Department of State issued multiple calls on the Government of Bahrain to release imprisoned human rights defender Nabeel Rajab. The US Mission to the United Nations first published a statement to Twitter: “The United States is disappointed by Bahrain’s decision to sentence human rights activist NABEELRAJAB, and we reiterate previous calls for his release. No one should be imprisoned for exercising their human rights and fundamental freedoms.” Following the Mission’s statement, State Department Spokesperson Heather Nauert responded to a question on Rajab’s case by pointing to his broad international following and his message of non-violent rights activism, noting that the Bahraini government has now sentenced him to a total of seven years in prison for his peaceful criticism. Nauert reemphasized the previous calls for his release and urged Bahrain to respect its international obligations to protect free expression.
ADHRB deeply welcomes these calls from the State Department but remains concerned that the Trump Administration’s broader acceptance of Bahraini human rights abuses enables further repression. We urge the State Department, and Congress, to take concrete measures to pressure the Bahraini authorities for Rajab’s release, including the suspension or restriction of security assistance pending reform.
21 February 2018 – Bahrain’s High Criminal Court today sentenced leading human rights defender Nabeel Rajab to five years in prison in a blatant violation of free expression. President of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights (BCHR), Rajab has faced continuous reprisal for his activism and is already serving a two-year prison sentence for giving interviews to the media. Seven years after the 2011 pro-democracy uprising, his further imprisonment underscores Bahrain’s near-total abandonment of reform. Americans for Democracy & Human Rights in Bahrain (ADHRB) condemns the court’s decision to punish Nabeel Rajab for his human rights work in the strongest possible terms, and calls on the Government of Bahrain to immediately release him and all other detainees held solely for exercising their right to free expression.
Bahraini authorities have repeatedly targeted Rajab in retaliation for his human rights work, and his most recent arrest occurred in June 2016. After more than a year of postponements, unfair trial proceedings, and abusive pre-trial detention conditions, the High Criminal Court in July 2017 sentenced Rajab to two years in prison for “publishing and disseminating rumors and false news” (Article 134 of the Penal Code). The charges stemmed from television interviews he gave in 2015 and 2016 in which he discussed restrictions of freedom of the press in Bahrain. Rajab appealed the decision but the ruling was twice upheld, with a final 15 January 2018 confirmation from Bahrain’s highest court.
Now, Rajab has been sentenced to an additional five years on charges of “spreading false rumors in time of war” (Article 133 of the Penal Code), “insulting public authorities” (Article 216 of the Penal Code), and “insulting a foreign country” (Article 215 of the Penal Code) stemming from comments posted to his Twitter documenting torture in Bahrain’s prisons and criticizing Bahrain’s role in the Saudi Arabia-led military operation in Yemen. The authorities previously arrested Rajab for this set of offenses on 2 April 2015, but the king pardoned him that July for health reasons. Nevertheless, the charges remained active, and the government began prosecuting him again on 12 July 2016. The trial has extended over nearly 20 months of frequent rescheduling and postponements since his re-arrest that June. In total, the charges could warrant up to 15 years in prison, and it is not uncommon for the Bahraini Public Prosecution Office to appeal a successful conviction in pursuit of a harsher sentence.
The charges against Rajab inherently contravene the right to free expression, and the allegation of “spreading false rumors” is particularly baseless, as objective observers at the United Nations (UN) – including the High Commissioner for Human Rights, the Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights, and the Committee Against Torture – have all documented the abuses raised by the tweets in question. Moreover, since his arrest, the Assistant Secretary-General and the Committee Against Torture have specifically cited Rajab’s case amid other reports of arbitrary detention, torture, and reprisal in Bahrain.
During his time in detention, Rajab has experienced harsh treatment and inhumane living conditions. For much of the pre-trial period, Bahraini authorities held him in extended solitary confinement for months at a time in an unhygienic cell in East Riffa police station, violating Bahraini legal provisions meant to limit the use of isolation. He has suffered from severe skin infections and chronic gallstones, among other ailments, and the authorities denied him proper medical care. As a result, Rajab’s health deteriorated and he was twice hospitalized. After he was transferred to Jau Prison in October 2017, the guards subjected him to degrading treatment, including forcibly shaving his hair, arbitrarily raiding his cell at night, and confiscating his personal items. BCHR, FIDH, and the Gulf Center for Human Rights (GCHR) reported in January 2018 that the prison administration appeared to be purposefully interfering with Rajab’s ongoing medical treatment, and in February 2018, before today’s conviction, the authorities also prevented Rajab from attending his aunt’s funeral, violating Bahraini law.
In addition to the two- and five-year sentences, Rajab could also face further prison time over new accusations levelled against him while in detention. Though proceedings have not formally begun, the authorities have threatened to charge Rajab with additional counts of “spreading false news and statements and malicious rumors that undermine the prestige of the state” in relation to letters published in The New York Times and Le Monde. Furthermore, on 12 September 2017, the government charged him with “spreading false news,” “inciting hatred against the regime,” and “inciting non-compliance with the law” over social media posts published on his Twitter and Instagram accounts while he was already in police custody in January 2017. The case has yet to be referred to trial and could be activated at any time.
Rajab’s newest conviction comes as Bahrain’s closest allies have reduced pressure for reform. Though the United States (US), among other countries, has explicitly called for Rajab’s release in the past, the Department of State recently softened its position. Yesterday, just before the new ruling, the State Department’s spokesperson expressed “disappointment” and “very serious concern” over the targeting of a “prominent human rights activist” like Rajab, but declined to clearly request his release, saying only that the US would continue “conversations” with the Bahraini government. This weakened statement follows the Trump Administration’s decision to strip human rights conditions from a multibillion arms sale to Bahrain, as well as a Congressional staff delegation beginning earlier this week. It also comes despite recent concern from Congressional leaders, however, including Congressman Jim McGovern (D-MA) of the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission and Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR), who both explicitly called for Rajab’s release during the seventh anniversary of Bahrain’s pro-democracy uprising last week.
“Today’s decision to extend the arbitrary imprisonment of Nabeel Rajab is a clear attack not just on human rights defenders, but also on fundamental freedoms in Bahrain,” said Husain Abdulla, ADHRB’s Executive Director. “The charges themselves are egregious violations of free expression, and the invocation of ‘fake news’ is a cynical, malicious attempt to punish an activist simply for doing his job: exposing the truth about severe abuses. The US – and particularly Mr. Trump, as a leading proponent of this dangerous ‘fake news’ rhetoric – must loudly and immediately call on its ally to free Nabeel and drop all charges. If the administration won’t act, Congress needs to step in and do what’s right for the US and for Bahrain.”
Nabeel Rajab is one of thousands of Bahrainis targeted for exercising basic human rights like those to free expression and assembly, with the kingdom currently holding between 3,000 and 4,000 political prisoners. Human rights defenders must be free to carry out their work, and Rajab is no exception. By imprisoning Rajab solely for speaking out about abuses, Bahrain is violating his internationally protected right to free expression under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), and must unconditionally release him. ADHRB further calls on the international community – and particularly key allies like the US – to insist Bahrain immediately drop all charges against Nabeel Rajab and end all forms of reprisal against civil society activists.