21 February 2018 – Today, the Bahrain High Criminal Court sentenced leading human rights defender Nabeel Rajab to five years imprisonment for expressing critical comments on social media. Rajab tweeted his condemnation of the airstrikes in Yemen mounted by the Saudi-led coalition and exposed the widespread torture occuring in Bahrain’s infamous Jau Prison.
In total, Rajab has now been convicted in two separate trials and faces seven years in prison.
The Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy (BIRD) strongly condemns Rajab’s sentencing and urges the Bahraini authorities to quash the verdict.
Sayed Ahmed Alwadaei, Director of Advocacy at BIRD, said: “This judgment is a prime example of how the Bahraini Courts are curtailing freedom of expression by deterring Bahraini citizens from criticising its authorities. Instead of rewarding Nabeel Rajab for his brave and commendable exposure of human rights abuses and advocacy for peace, the authorities have chosen to punish the messenger. It seems that the unconditional support from the UK and the US has simply emboldened the Bahraini Government to continue its crackdown on civil society.”
The social media activity being held against Rajab occurred entirely in 2015. On 2 April 2015, Rajab was arrested for “posting information that sought to incite public unrest and public defamation of government institutions.”
Specifically, Rajab was charged with the following:
- Bahraini Penal Code Article 133: Deliberately announcing “in wartime false or malicious news, statements or rumors…to cause damage to military preparations for defending the State of Bahrain”, which refers to comments on the humanitarian crisis in Yemen.
- Bahraini Penal Code Article 215: “Insulting a neighbouring country”, which refers to his statements against Saudi Arabia.
- Bahraini Penal Code Article 216: “Insulting national institutions”, referring to the Ministry of Interior, based on comments about unrest in Jau Prison in March 2015.
He was released three months later on 13 July 2015 on humanitarian grounds, therefore his charges never taken to court.
While in detention, Rajab’s trial for his social media activity, for which he was charged in April 2015, commenced with its first hearing on 12 July 2016. Today’s conclusion to the trial marks the 21st hearing in the case.
BIRD has obtained Rajab’s Public Prosecution documentation, which represents a dossier of all the incriminating Tweets for which Rajab is being held accountable. Below is an example of one of the tweets that led to Rajab’s charge and subsequent conviction:
Rajab’s exposure of the widespread torture inflicted upon inmates in Bahraini prisons occasionally involved criticism of Bahraini oversight institutions, including the National Institute for Human Rights and the Ministry of Interior Ombudsman, which received £1.5m in funding from the UK as technical assistance this year.
Tweets on the humanitarian crisis in Yemen were also considered offensive, including: “We have the right to say no to the war in #Yemen and should struggle for peace and stability but not bloodshed #Sanaa.”
The Public Prosecution documentation further revealed that Rajab is being held to account for retweeting critical comments made by others, including Human Rights Watch scathing reporting of torture in Jau Prison.
On 26 March 2015, the Bahraini Ministry of Interior issued a statement in which it warned “against any attempt to exploit the situation through division or sedition, or issuance of statements against the approach Bahrain has taken.”
This statement was issued shortly after the announcement that Bahrain would be joining the Saudi-led coalition in its bombardment of Yemen.
25 UK Parliamentarians have written to Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson to urge him to publicly call for the release of Rajab and to express their disappointment with the FCO’s policy towards Bahrain in general.
In September 2017, the UN condemned the increasing number of Bahraini human rights defenders facing reprisals, naming Rajab as one of the nine affected individuals. The UN Committee Against Torture has also called for Rajab’s release.
The Trump administration removed Obama-era human rights conditions on arms sales, one of which was the unconditional release of Rajab.
Yesterday, however, the US Department of State expressed “serious concerns” when questioned about today’s verdict and stated “very disappointed” by the Court of Cassation decision to uphold his two year sentence in a separate case last month. In October 2016, the US State Department had urged the Bahraini government to drop the charges against Rajab and commented: “At today’s hearing, it became clear that the government lacks evidence to support its case, and so once again we reject the charges against Rajab.”