Bahrain: Nabeel Rajab faces another defiant year in prison


By Brian Dooley

He was the first person I met in Bahrain. I arrived at my hotel in the early hours of the morning one day in May 2011. He was waiting for me in the dark of the closed coffee shop of the hotel lobby, and told me what had happened in the previous weeks - the government had embarked on a violent crackdown following mass uprisings calling for reform that had begun a few months earlier. 

Thousands had been arrested and many tortured in jail. His close friend and human rights colleague, Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja, was among many who had been seized as the government sought revenge on people who dared to criticise the ruling family.

Bahrain’s state of emergency and curfew were still on, and in the following days he took me to homes where people had been arrested or disappeared in the previous weeks. You could feel people’s fear, and the comfort Nabeel Rajab's visits brought to them.

We went to Karim Fakhrawi’s house. He was a businessman and founder of Bahrain’s only independent newspaper, Al Wasat. His family told us how he had been taken from the home a few weeks earlier, and tortured to death in custody.

In the following months of that year I went to dozens more homes with Nabeel, hearing stories of abuse by the security forces, seeing the damage they had done to furniture and religious symbols.

In some small villages he was greeted like a rock star, with crowds instantly gathering and pushing around him. At times it was overwhelming. In those days of 2011 he would be mobbed when he stepped out of the car, an icon of defiance and hope, but still so dangerous to know that few wanted selfies with him.

We spent days and nights visiting people in Manama, Bani Jamra, and Duraz. We were teargassed in Bilad Al-Qadim. We went to the Sar home of 15 year-old Sayed Ahmed Sayed Saeed. A few weeks earlier he’d been playing football on the street with his friends when he was killed by a policeman who shot a sound bomb cartridge into the back of his head. An avid Manchester United fan, a poster of the team was still up on his bedroom wall.

It was tough going for Nabeel, month after month, year after year, carrying the stress of being attacked or arrested. He shouldered expectations that he could do something to prevent the state violence. In an effort to eat healthily, he'd sometimes carry a tupperware box full of lettuce as we started a day of visits, deluding himself that he'd resist the social pressure of eating at virtually every home we visited.

His work won international recognition, as parliaments began to name him and pay tribute to his work, and human rights organisations gave him awards. I’ve spoken about him many times in the United States Congress, and at the United Nations.  U.S. Congressman Jim McGovern has taken up his case as part of the Defending Freedoms project, regularly speaking about his case and calling for his release.

The Bahrain government never knew what to do about Nabeel - sometimes ignoring him, sometimes smearing him, sometimes jailing him.

He’s back in prison in Bahrain now, held near but separately from the other founding director of the Gulf Centre for Human Rights (GCHR), Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja, who was given a life sentence for his human rights work. Ahmed Mansoor, an advisory board member of the GCHR, is serving a 10-year jail sentence in the nearby United Arab Emirates for his human rights activism, as are many other human rights defenders associated with GCHR.

Nabeel is not due out until 2023, serving a five-year sentence for tweeting the truth about how bad the Saudi-led coalition air strikes were in Yemen, and that detainees in Bahrain’s Jau Prison were being tortured. He’s held in that same prison now, in a building with two cells. He’s kept with those sentenced for drug dealing and other common crimes, contrary to United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners. In the other cell are prisoners convicted of being in Da’esh.

In late 2019, he was allowed to attend the wedding of his son, Adam Rajab. “It had to be held in a court room so my dad could attend,” said Adam. “No cameras were allowed, there were police all over the place. But we sat and ate and sang wedding songs and it was fun. We had about half an hour with him, it was really emotional, and his spirits were really high.”

Over the years Nabeel has always sounded strong when he’s managed to call me, the energy and humour still there in his voice. Governments and advocates in dozens of countries are pushing for his release, and whether he spends 2020 in prison or is freed during the year, he will remain an international symbol of defiance against government repression, and one of the world’s most prominent and inspirational human rights defenders.

Brian Dooley is an Advisory Board member of the Gulf Centre for Human Rights and a Senior Advisor at Human Rights First. Follow him @dooley_dooley