16 August 2018 – Yesterday, the United Nations (UN) Working Group on Arbitrary Detention (WGAD) published an opinion concerning the detention of prominent human rights defender Nabeel Rajab. The WGAD ultimately determined that Nabeel’s imprisonment is in violation of several norms and laws of international human rights, and that his detention is therefore arbitrary. The WGAD even noted that he should never have been subjected to a trial in the first place, and ultimately called for his immediate release and a right to compensation and other reparations. Americans for Democracy & Human Rights in Bahrain (ADHRB), the Bahrain Institute for Rights & Democracy (BIRD), and the European Centre for Rights & Democracy (ECDHR) welcome the opinion of the Working Group, and urge the Bahraini authorities to follow the recommendations and immediately release Nabeel Rajab.

The WGAD is one of the Special Procedures offices of the UN Human Rights Council. As part of its regular procedures, the Working Group sends allegation letters to governments concerning credible cases of arbitrary detentions, and may also render opinions on whether an individual or group’s detention is arbitrary and in violation of international law. The WGAD reviews cases under five categories of arbitrary detention: when it is clearly impossible to invoke any legal basis justifying the deprivation of liberty (Category I); when the deprivation of liberty results from the exercise of the rights to equal protection of the law, freedom of thought, freedom of opinion and expression, and freedom of assembly, among others (Category II); when violations of the right to a fair trial are so severe that the detention is rendered arbitrary (Category III); prolonged administrative custody for refugees and asylum seekers (Category IV); and when the detention is discriminatory on the basis of birth, national, ethnic or social origin, language, religion, economic condition, political or other opinion, gender, sexual orientation, disability, or any other status (Category V).

In the present opinion, Opinion 13/2018 adopted in April 2018, the WGAD found that Nabeel’s detention is arbitrary under Categories II (in violation of the right to freedom of expression and opinion) and V (his detention is discriminatory on the basis of his status as a human rights defender).

Nabeel Rajab is a human rights defender currently serving seven years in prison. He was arrested on 13 June 2016. On 10 July 2017, he was convicted and sentenced to two years in prison on charges relating to comments he made on television interviews in 2015 and 2016. This sentence was upheld by the Court of Appeals and the Court of Cassation. On 21 February 2018, the Bahraini High Criminal Court convicted and sentenced Nabeel to a further five-year prison term on the charges relating to statements he published on Twitter critical of the Saudi coalition actions in Yemen and highlighting torture in Bahraini prisons. On 5 June 2018, the High Court of Appeal upheld this decision. His case is now pending before the Court of Cassation.

In rendering its opinion, the WGAD made the following statements:

“Mr. Rajab has been arrested, detained, prosecuted and imprisoned for allegedly spreading false news abroad which damages the national interest and for allegedly spreading false rumours in wartime, insulting governing authorities and insulting a foreign country — pursuant to articles 133, 134, 215 and 216 of the Penal Code. . .  these provisions of the Penal Code are so vague and overly broad that they could, as in the present case, result in penalties being imposed on individuals who had merely exercised their rights under international law.

“Given its finding that the deprivation of liberty of Mr. Rajab is arbitrary under category II, . . . no such trial of Mr. Rajab should have taken place or take place in the future.”

The Working Group cannot help but notice that Mr. Rajab’s political views and convictions are clearly at the centre of the present case and that the authorities have displayed an attitude towards him that can only be characterized as discriminatory; indeed, he has been the target of persecution, including deprivation of liberty, for many years and there is no other explanation for this except that he is exercising his right to express such views and convictions.”

The deprivation of liberty of Nabeel Ahmed Abdulrasool Rajab, being in contravention of articles 2, 3, 7, 9, 10, 11, 18 and 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and of articles 2, 9, 10, 14, 18, 19 and 26 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights is arbitrary and falls within categories II and V.”

“The Working Group considers that … the appropriate remedy would be to release Mr. Rajab immediately and accord him an enforceable right to compensation and other reparations, in accordance with international law.”

“The present case is one of several brought before the Working Group in the past five years concerning the arbitrary deprivation of liberty of persons in Bahrain . . . under certain circumstances, widespread or systematic imprisonment or other severe deprivation of liberty in violation of the rules of international law may constitute crimes against humanity.

This is the second time that the Working Group has issued an opinion on Nabeel Rajab’s detention; in opinion No. 12 of 2013, the WGAD concluded that Nabeel was arbitrarily detained when he was arrested on charges of insulting statutory bodies and participating in illegal demonstrations in Muharraq.

The United States has called for Nabeel’s release on multiple occasions, most recently on 22 February 2018. However, the United Kingdom, another important ally for Bahrain, has not yet called for his release. The US Navy’s Fifth Fleet is stationed in Bahrain, and the UK recently opened a naval base there. Both support Bahrain with security assistance including training and arms sales.

“The UN has essentially stated now what we in the Bahraini human rights community have known to be true for years: that Nabeel has been targeted for his human rights work, and that he should never have been on trial for Tweets and interviews,” says Husain Abdulla, Executive Director of ADHRB. “This is the second time that the Working Group has found that Bahrain detained Nabeel in violation of international law. If the Bahraini authorities fail to release Nabeel immediately, the international community must take note that Bahrain is abandoning international law, and that the level of these detentions in Bahrain may even be a crime against humanity.”

“The UN is unequivocal: Nabeel Rajab is wrongfully imprisoned. This is not something that allies like the United States and the United Kingdom can ignore anymore,” says Sayed AlWadaei, Director of Advocacy at BIRD. “These governments are bound to abide by international human rights obligations, and claim that they stand for human rights and freedom of expression. The US and UK need to prove those claims by supporting the Working Group’s determination and working with Bahrain as their ally to secure his release.”

ADHRB, BIRD, and ECDHR support the opinion of the WGAD, and echo its calls for Nabeel’s immediate release and right to compensation. We further welcome the commentary by the WGAD on the rights to freedom of opinion and expression and the vagueness of the criminal provisions restricting these rights. Finally, we reiterate the comments of the WGAD concerning the pattern of abuses in Bahrain, and that such widespread and systematic arbitrary detention can amount to a crime against humanity.