Bahrain: Bahrain: Nabeel Rajab sentenced in free expression case, belying promises of reform

20.01.15

Prominent human rights defender Nabeel Rajab was sentenced to six months in jail on 20 January in his latest twitter case, which serves as yet another example of the Bahraini government’s criminal prosecution of those who exercise the right to free expression.

Rajab is free on bail pending an appeal, and remains under a travel ban. Rajab is the president of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, a founder of the Gulf Centre for Human Rights (GCHR), Deputy Secretary General of the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), and a member of a Human Rights Watch advisory committee.

Rajab was charged under article 216 of Bahrain’s penal code with “offending national institutions,” specifically the Ministries of Interior and Defense. The prosecution was based on a tweet from 28 September 2014 in which Rajab wrote: “many #Bahrain men who joined #terrorism & #ISIS have come from the security institutions and those institutions were the first ideological incubator.”

“Nabeel is being prosecuted simply for partaking in a public conversation about extremism in Bahrain. He did not commit a crime and should not have been prosecuted, let alone found guilty and given a jail sentence,” said Khalid Ibrahim, GCHR Director of Programmes.

At the first hearing in the trial on 19 October, Rajab noted that the content of his tweets did not involve anything that could offend a public institution because, while they referred generally to security organizations, he did not specify any single public institution. In a previous twitter case in 2012, Rajab was found not guilty of insulting a public official under similar circumstances.

Rajab also told the court that the tweets at issue related to an issue of national concern in Bahrain that was being discussed publicly in the media and online, and that the tweets simply represented his contribution to that discussion.

In court, Rajab’s lawyer Jalila Al-Sayed submitted evidence to support his claims on twitter (not that prosecution would have been appropriate without this evidence), including a YouTube clip showing Mohamed Isa Al-Binali, a former security officer for Bahrain’s Interior Ministry, urging other security force members to join the Islamic State. However, the judge refused to view the video in court at a following hearing.

A trial observer at the 19 October hearing reported that the prosecutor urged the court to convict Rajab simply because he had acknowledged making the comments that form the basis of the charge and regardless of international and Bahraini law protecting freedom of expression.

Al-Sayed argued that “free expression is protected under Bahraini law and its constitution and that the government has a duty to allow its people to express their opinion about public matters.” Moreover, Bahrain has promised the UN and its allies that it would stop violating freedom of expression, yet it continues to jail human rights defenders, opposition leaders and journalists.

At a hearing on 2 November, Al-Sayed drew the judge’s attention to the fact that Rajab has been targeted for exercising basic rights in six cases since 2012. Indeed, Rajab previously served two years in prison for organizing and participating in three demonstrations in early 2012, despite the complete absence of evidence that Rajab advocated or engaged in violence.

On 12 January 2015, GCHR was among 15 leading human rights NGOs which wrote to Members of the European Parliament asking them again to raise Rajab’s case in their own countries. “We therefore urge you to call on your government to explicitly and publicly call for the charges against Mr. Nabeel Rajab, which are based solely on his peaceful exercise of the right to freedom of expression, to be immediately dropped,” said the letter.

On 28 October 2014, 40 Members of the European Parliament, called “for the immediate and unconditional release of Mr. Nabeel Rajab.” That number has grown to 80 MEPs, more than 10% of the total number of the European chamber. Moreover, on 19 January 2015, approximately 60 NGOs worldwide, including GCHR, issued a joint appeal, in which they “strongly condemn[ed] the politically-motivated judicial attack against Nabeel Rajab” and called on Bahrain to “end reprisals against human rights defenders.”

GCHR reiterates its call for the cessation of the prosecution of Rajab.  In addition, Bahrain should immediately revoke all laws that violate freedom of speech, including those that criminalize insulting or defaming state institutions or the monarch.