14 June 2019 – Yesterday marked three years since human rights defender Nabeel Rajab was arrested at his home on 13 June 2016 by Bahraini security forces, led by the Ministry of Interior’s notorious Cybercrime Unit in the General Directorate of Anti-Corruption, Economic, and Electronic Security (GDAEES). Nabeel Rajab has been repeatedly targeted by the Bahraini government for his activism, and is currently serving a total of seven years in prison on charges stemming solely from exercising his right to free expression. Americans for Democracy & Human Rights in Bahrain (ADHRB) strongly condemns Bahrain’s continued criminalization of fundamental freedoms, including free speech, and calls on Bahrain to immediately and unconditionally release Nabeel Rajab and all other prisoners of conscience.
Following his initial arrest, Nabeel was detained throughout trial and ultimately sentenced to two years in prison in July 2017 for “publishing and disseminating rumors and false news” in relation to televised interviews he gave in 2015 and 2016 where he discussed restrictions to free press in the kingdom. This verdict was upheld by Bahrain’s Court of Cassation in January 2018. The following month, after repeated postponements of the trial, Bahrain’s High Criminal Court sentenced Nabeel to an additional five years in prison on politically-motivated charges of “spreading false rumors in time of war,” “insulting public authorities,” and “insulting a foreign country.” These charges stemmed solely from tweets and re-tweets critical of torture in Bahraini prisons and Saudi Arabia’s role in the war in Yemen. His five year sentence was upheld in December 2018, and his sentences will run consecutively, so Nabeel will remain in prison until 2023.
In addition to the two- and five-year sentences, Nabeel 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.
Nabeel has been in Bahrain’s Jau Prison since his arrest in 2016, and has been exposed to harsh treatment and inhumane living conditions. He was held largely in solitary confinement for the first nine months of his detention. As a result of his treatment, his health has suffered a significant decline. In 2017, while serving an earlier prison sentence of two years for media interviews, Nabeel had surgery for a bleeding ulcer and was promptly returned to solitary confinement. He was forced to remain in dirty and bloody clothes and denied hygienic products, causing him to be rushed to the hospital two days later with a severe infection.
The imprisonment and treatment of Nabeel Rajab has garnered international attention and concern. The United States (US) State Department condemned the sentencing of Nabeel in 2017 and called for his release, repeating these calls again in 2018 following his second conviction and subsequent sentencing in relation to tweets. The US Mission to the United Nations (UN) also expressed disappointment in Nabeel’s sentencing, stating, “no one should be imprisoned for exercising their human rights and fundamental freedoms.” US Congress has urged Bahrain to release political prisoner and prisoners of conscience like Nabeel, including in statements by Senator Wyden, Senator Rubio, and Representative McGovern.
In June 2018, the European Parliament (EP) adopted a resolution condemning escalating repression in Bahrain and calling on the government to unconditionally release imprisoned human rights defender Nabeel Rajab. Two months later, the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention (WGAD) published an opinion that determined Nabeel’s imprisonment to be in violation of several norms and laws of international human rights, and that his detention is therefore arbitrary. His case has also been highlighted by former United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights, and the Committee Against Torture, and was raised in the UN Human Rights Committee’s concluding observations regarding Bahrain’s initial International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) periodic report. Additionally, High Commissioner Bachelet called for the release of all human rights defenders, including Nabeel, in her opening remarks at the 39th session of the Human Right Council, and called again for his release following the rejection of his December 2018 appeal. In response to this, Bahrain’s MOI published a statement stating Nabeel’s conviction was for statements that “do not fall within the protections for freedom of expression,” echoing a statement (now deleted) in the Bahrain News Agency site that said his detention had “nothing to do with freedom of expression.” When new laws for alternative sentencing were implemented in Bahrain, his request for release under alternative sentencing was denied. Reportedly, no political prisoners were granted this measure.
Nabeel’s case is indicative of Bahrain’s larger crackdown on free expression and online activism using broad cybercrime and counter-terror legislations. In May 2019, the King of Bahrain further amended its counter-terror legislation to extend outside of Bahrain’s territory and to include criminal liability for anyone who possesses statements allegedly supporting terrorism “for a purpose of distributing it or informing others about it.” With this amendment, the Bahraini government can charge individuals with promoting terrorism for simply liking a tweet that they deem “damages national unity.” Bahrainis also reported receiving text messages threatening them with criminal liability if they even follow these accounts on social media.
“Nabeel Rajab is a prime example of the Bahraini government’s intense suppression of free expression, closure of civil space, and the lengths to which the government will go to punish and silence any criticism,” says Husain Abdulla Executive Director of ADHRB. “The vast amount of international concern for his case reiterates the arbitrary and unjust nature of his continued detention. A seven-year sentence for advocating for the human rights of others is unconscionable. The Bahraini government must listen to the calls of the international community and immediately release Nabeel and allow him to peacefully carry on with his human rights work.”
ADHRB is deeply disappointed that prominent activist Nabeel Rajab still remains in prison three years after his arbitrary arrest, and despite international concerns. We call on the Government of Bahrain to overturn Nabeel’s convictions, allow for his immediate release, and drop all remaining arbitrary charges against him. No one should be punished for simply exercising their right to free expression.