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Nabeel Rajab: The Government’s Troublemaker

Nabeel Rajab, one of Bahrain's best-known human rights activists, walks toward the courthouse to attend his appeal hearing in Manama, Bahrain, Wednesday, Feb. 11, 2015,. Rajab was sentenced to six months in jail last month for insulting government ministries on Twitter, but has been free on bail pending his appeal. (AP Photo/Hasan Jamali)
Nabeel Rajab. Photo Hasan Jamali

Less than a year after being released from jail, Nabil Rajab found himself behind bars again in January 2015. Rajab, the president of the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights and one of the preeminent defenders of human rights in the Gulf region, is a spiritual leader of the people, an inspiration to human-rights activists, and a troublemaker for the government.

Rajab (b. 1964) is building a legacy of human-rights activism as a member of the Advisory Committee of Human Rights Watch’s Middle East Division, deputy secretary-general for the International Federation for Human Rights, and president of Gulf Centre for Human Rights. His human-rights activity began in the 1990s uprising—then, as now, mainly Shiite—against the mainly Sunni government. He campaigned first on behalf of migrant workers in Gulf Cooperation Council countries, then became a leading campaigner against civil and human-rights abuses in Bahrain. Rajab moved to the forefront of the 2011 Bahraini uprising for democratic change.

During the authorities’ crackdown on the 2011 pro-democracy uprising, opposition leaders were arrested and activists spirited away, but Rajab remained in the arena to lead numerous protests and to document and criticize civil and human-rights abuses, including arbitrary arrests, torture, and deaths in official custody. In turn, the security forces targeted Rajab. His home, in the village of Bani Jamra, has been attacked with tear gas more than once, has allegedly been beaten and threatened, and has been in and out of prison several times.

In addition to Rajab’s prominent activities in protests and demonstrations, he is well known for his pioneering use of social networking, which he has used as a key element in his human-rights campaigning to spread the word to the international community of the abuses his nation is suffering. This virtual battlefield got him into prison more than once. On 5 May 2012, Rajab was arrested the day before a scheduled court hearing related to a march he had attended in March. Australian journalist and activist Julian Assange stated that he believed Rajab was arrested because of his appearance on Assange’s World Tomorrow television talk show.

Rajab was released on bail after spending twenty-four days in detention, only to be re-arrested a few months later over tweets in which he criticized the prime minister. He was found to have insulted Bahrainis by tweeting, “Everyone knows you [the prime minister] are not popular, and, if it weren’t for the need for money [the residents of the Bahraini city of Muharraq] would not have welcomed you.”

He was charged with “publicly vilifying the people of al-Muharraq and questioning their patriotism with disgraceful expressions posted via social networking websites.” In December 2012, Rajab was sentenced on six charges to two years in prison, after he was cleared of insulting police; he was released in May 2014.

It didn’t take Rajab much to get himself back to prison—just another tweet. In October 2014 Rajab was arrested at the Bahrain International Airport and charged with insulting public institutions, having just returned from a two-month advocacy tour that included his participation in the 27th Session of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva and the European Parliament in Brussels, as well as meeting with foreign ministries throughout Europe. Rajab was charged with ‘’publicly insulting official institutions’’ after criticizing the Ministry of Interior and Ministry of Defence on Twitter for allegedly being the ideological incubators of Bahrainis who had joined the Islamic State.

Once again, Rajab was unable to get out of jail, as he was sentenced on 20 January to six months in prison on a conviction related to a tweet he had published in September 2014. The international community condemned Rajab’s arrest: 103 members of the European Parliament, 21 UK members of parliament, and 59 NGOs and civil-society organizations called for the charges against Rajab to be dropped. The United States, Norway, France, and the United Nations all made public statements supporting Rajab and called for respect of freedom of expression and free public debate in Bahrain. Rupert Colville, the spokesperson for the High Commissioner for Human Rights, declared, “We are particularly concerned about two individuals currently in detention in Bahrain, namely Sheikh Ali al-Salman, the secretary-general of al-Wefaq political party, and Nabeel Rajab.

In July 2015 Rajab was pardoned by the king after serving three months of a six-month prison sentence. The pardon came on account of fears over Mr. Rajab’s health. Some saw the pardon as the government’s indirect yielding to the international pressure it has been subjected to over its suppression of human rights. Nabeel Rajab is only one of many defenders of human rights that are held behind bars for their human-rights activities; others include the prominent defenders Abdul Hadi al-Khawaja, Abdul Jalil al-Sangice, Naji Fateel, and many other prominent people.

Not only did Twitter drag Nabeel Rajab into prison more than once, it drew him into people’s hearts as well. Although it seemed that the government was trying hard to get Rajab removed from the scene every time it had the chance, that only made Rajab and his case more famous.

After his release, the human-rights defender stated, “I will continue tweeting, I will continue criticizing.” Rajab also said that he was targeted because of his peaceful advocacy of human rights and democracy and that he did not regret those activities. These statements summarize Rajab’s determination to pave the way for democracy, no matter how hard it can be. “I will try my level best to avoid breaking any of those laws, even those laws that don’t meet international standards. I think being out of jail I can work for change much better than when I’m inside jail,” Rajab said in an interview to RT Television’s website. In December 2015, Rajab remained under a travel ban, which the European Parliament in November 2015 urged Bahrain to lift.

Nabeel Rajab’s freedom did not last long, however. On 13 June 2016, the Bahraini authorities arrested him, officially charging him with ‘spreading false news and rumours about the internal situation in a bid to discredit Bahrain’. Pending further investigation, he was initially detained for a week and then again for eight days. On 26 June 2016, he appeared at the first court hearing on two separate charges: ‘posting information that could incite others and disrupt civil peace’, and having ‘illegally defamed a statutory body’. The accusations refer to messages that the activist posted in 2015 on Twitter, criticizing the Saudi-led war in Yemen and denouncing the torture of detainees in Jaw prison. Saudi Arabia is a close ally of Bahrain. He faces up to 15 years in prison.

Rajab’s trial has been postponed twice and is now scheduled for 6 October 2016. In the meantime, he is being kept in solitary confinement, as he stated himself in an open letter to The New York Times, and in poor conditions since his arrest. As a result, his health has rapidly deteriorated and he has been rushed to hospital on two occasions.

The US State Department called in September for his immediate release, and the British authorities are also said to be exerting pressure on the Bahraini government to stop the ongoing repression of freedom of expression. However, a Bahraini state prosecutor announced extra charges in connection with Rajab’s letter in The New York Times, accusing him of ‘intentionally broadcasting false news and malicious rumours abroad, impairing the prestige of the state’. These charges could bring him an additional year in prison.

Various international NGOs, including Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, have championed Rajab’s cause. In a letter sent to 50 different states, the NGOs urged governments to demand Rajab’s release and to ‘speak out’ against the Bahraini authorities’ repeated misuse of the judicial system in order to silence human rights advocates.

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