On January 6, the UN Human Rights office called for Bahrain to release Nabeel Rajab, a human rights defender imprisoned for tweeting criticism about Saudi Arabia’s airstrikes in Yemen and alleging torture inside Bahrain’s Jau Prison. Having already served two and a half years, he lost his final appeal against a five-year jail term last Monday.
Bahrain’s highest court upheld Nabeel Rajab’s conviction and five-year sentence last Monday for “spreading false news and rumors in time of war”, “insulting foreign countries” and “insulting publicly the interior ministry” but the UN agency says Rajab is being jailed for exercising his freedom of opinion and expression. Last year, the UN Working Group of Arbitrary Detention declared Rajab’s detention to be arbitrary. In addition, during the first part of his detention, he spent an excruciating nine months in solitary confinement, which amounts to torture and ill-treatment.
Nabeel Rajab is the head of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights and his comments online were made in 2015, when Saudi Arabia formed a coalition siding with the pro-Government fight in Yemen against Houthi rebels. One tweet read, “we have the right to say no to the war in #Yemen and should struggle for peace and security but not bloodshed #Sanaa.”
The UN Human Rights office spokeswoman Ravina Shamdasani said the Bahrain government will go to great lengths to keep human rights defenders from speaking out. She cited the case of Sayed Ahmed al-Wadaei who tried to participate in a session of the Human Rights Council in 2017.
“We call on the Government of Bahrain to immediately and unconditionally release prominent human rights defender Nabeel Rajab and to ensure that all Bahrainis are able to exercise their rights to freedom of opinion and expression without fear of arbitrary detention,” said the spokeswoman.
“We urge the government of Bahrain to stop criminalising dissenting voices,” she stated.
The British Minister for Middle East, Alistair Burt, has also expressed concern about the sentencing of Nabeel Rajab. He said “I am concerned about the upholding of the five-year sentence given to Mr Nabeel Rajab, in addition to the two-year sentence he has served. The UK urges Bahrain to protect freedom of expression for all its citizens, in line with their international commitments.”
Home to the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet and a British military base, Bahrain is located between regional rivals Saudi Arabia and Iran and has been ruled for more than two centuries by the Al-Khalifa dynasty. Bahraini authorities have jailed dozens of high-profile activists and disbanded both religious and secular opposition groups since Shiite-led protests demanding political change erupted in 2011. Rajab played a key role in the 2011 anti-government protests.
Violating its obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which the government has ratified, the Bahrain government have stripped hundreds of those convicted of their citizenship, leaving many stateless. According to the London-based Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy (BIRD), as of late October 2017 authorities had stripped 105 persons of Bahraini citizenship, bringing the total since 2012 to 455.
According to Human Rights Watch, Bahrain’s human rights situation continued to worsen in 2017 as authorities shut down the country’s only independent newspaper and the leading secular-left opposition political society.