8 May 2018 – A Bahraini court today adjourned the appeal hearing of imprisoned human rights defender Nabeel Rajab until 20 May 2018. This is the second hearing after Rajab decided to appeal his 21 February 2018 conviction on politically motivated charges of “spreading false rumors in time of war,” “insulting public authorities,” and “insulting a foreign country” that all stem solely from tweets and retweets. Of particular concern, we have learned that the presiding judge announced during the first appeal hearing on 23 April 2018 that Rajab is facing as many 14 additional cases that have yet to go to court. The judge did not provide any other information, but it appears these cases could move forward at any time, and could be arbitrarily activated as further reprisal for Rajab’s activism. Rajab is currently serving a total of seven years in prison. Americans for Democracy & Human Rights in Bahrain, the Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy (BIRD), and the European Centre for Democracy and Human Rights (ECDHR) condemn the ongoing judicial harassment and reprisals against Nabeel Rajab and call for his immediate release.
Rajab is currently appealing a five-year prison term for his social media posts, in which he called attention to torture in Bahrain’s prisons and criticized the war in Yemen. This sentence added to a two-year term he received on 10 July 2017 on charges of “publishing and disseminating rumors and false news” related to television interviews he gave in 2015 and 2016 in which he discussed restrictions of freedom of the press in Bahrain. Rajab appealed this decision as well, but the ruling was twice upheld, with a final 15 January 2018 confirmation from Bahrain’s highest court, the Court of Cassation. He was arrested ahead of these trials on 13 June 2016.
Bahraini authorities are holding Rajab in Jau Prison, the kingdom’s primary long-term male detention center notorious for abuse and poor living standards. Ahead of his first appeal hearing in April, Rajab’s family reported that the authorities denied him and other inmates access to water for more than a day and a half, and that they only relented after another detainee fainted from dehydration. His family also reports that Rajab is confined to his cell for 23 hours of every day, and that the authorities prevent him from reading books. When Rajab was first 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. The Bahrain Center for Human Rights (BCHR), the International Federation for Human Rights (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. Likewise, for much of the pre-trial detention period, Bahraini authorities held him in 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 has been repeatedly hospitalized.
In addition to the two- and five-year sentences, Rajab could also face further prison time for at least 14 other outstanding cases against him, according to sources familiar with the judge’s statements in his April appeal hearing. Though the judge did not describe the nature of the specific cases he was referring to, they presumably include two other accusations leveled against Rajab while he has been 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. This case has also yet to be referred to trial.
All of the known 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 he has raised in interviews and social media posts. 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.
The United States (US) Government has also consistently urged the Bahraini authorities to drop the charges against Rajab, and on 22 February 2018, the Department of State issued multiple calls for his release. The US Mission to the UN published a statement to Twitter indicating that the US was “disappointed” by the verdict, reiterating “previous calls for his release,” and emphasizing that “no one should be imprisoned for exercising their human rights and fundamental freedoms.” Following the statement, State Department Spokesperson Heather Nauert responded to a question on Rajab’s case by highlighting his broad international following and his message of non-violent rights activism, as well as criticizing his long sentence for peaceful criticism. Nauert also reiterated the previous calls for his release and urged Bahrain to respect its international obligations to protect free expression. Congressional leaders like Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR), Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL), and Representative Jim McGovern (D-MA) have also condemned the government’s harassment of Rajab and called for his freedom.
The Bahraini government’s imprisonment of Nabeel Rajab is a blatant violation of free expression and clear reprisal against a human rights defender for his activism. He should be released at once. Until he is free, the US State Department, Congress and the international community must take concrete measures to pressure the Bahraini authorities for Rajab’s release, including the suspension or restriction of security assistance pending reform.