24 November 2017 – On Wednesday 22 November, Nabeel Rajab’s sentence to two years in prison for speaking to journalists was upheld by a Bahraini appeals court at the conclusion of a long-running, unfair trial.
Nabeel Rajab will serve his sentence at notorious Jau Prison until December 2018, by which time he will have actually spent two and a half years in prison. He faces up to 15 years in prison in a separate case related to his comments on Twitter, with the next hearing set on 31 December 2017.
Confirmation of the sentence after an unfair trial
Nabeel Rajab, President of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights (BCHR), Founding Director of the Gulf Centre for Human Rights (GCHR) and Deputy Secretary General of the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), is a prisoner of conscience, detained solely for peacefully exercising his right to freedom of expression. He was arrested on 13 June 2016 and sentenced in absentia on 10 July 2017 on charges of “publishing and broadcasting fake news that undermines the prestige of the state” under article 134 of Bahrain’s Penal Code. The charges relate to TV interviews he gave in 2015 and 2016 in which he discussed the Bahraini government’s restrictions on foreign press and Bahrain poor human rights’ record.
The Bahraini courts have failed to provide Nabeel Rajab a fair trial at every turn. Mr Rajab has been detained since his arrest on 13 June 2016 and held largely in solitary confinement for the first nine months of his detention, violating the UN Standard Minimum Rules for Non-Custodial Measures. The human rights defender was transferred to Jau Prison on 25 October 2017, having been hospitalised since April after a serious deterioration of his health resulting from the authorities’ denial of adequate medical care and unhygienic conditions of detention. Upon arrival at the prison, Nabeel Rajab was subjected to humiliating treatment, including degrading search, forced shaving and confiscation of books, toiletries and clothes.
In the last appeal court hearing on 8 November, the judge refused to allow the defence’s evidence, which included testimonies of high-profile journalists and researchers who had been banned from entering Bahrain. During his hospitalisation earlier this year, multiple court hearings were held in Rajab’s absence, including his sentencing in July.
On 23 November, DROI Chair Pier Antonio Panzeri publicly condemned the rejection of Nabeel Rajab’s appeal by the Bahraini Court and highlighted that “this decision goes against international law and his detention violates Nabeel Rajab’s right to freedom of expression”. He called on the Government of Bahrain “to reconsider its decision and re-examine Mr Nabeel Rajab’s appeal in the light of evidence provided by his defence”.
Ahead of the hearing on 22 November, fifteen international and local NGOs wrote to the EU and states including the UK, Germany, France, Italy, Denmark, Sweden and Ireland urging them to call for Nabeel Rajab’s immediate and unconditional release. Their call was echoed in Brussels by MEP Julie Ward (S&D) and MEP Wajid Khan (S&D) who issued a letter addressed to Theresa May and Boris Johnson expressing deep concern over Nabeel Rajab’s case and calling of the British government to urge Bahrain to immediately release him, drop the charges against him, and to undertake effective investigations into the allegations of ill-treatment. Furthermore, several MEPs, including Julie Ward (S&D), Brando Benifei (S&D), Alessia Maria Mosca (S&D), Bart Staes (Greens/EFA) and Jose Inacio Faria (EPP), expressed support for Nabeel Rajab ahead of his trial and expressed serious concern for his ongoing harassment. Their voices were joined by protesters in London. In Washington D.C., a petition signed by 15,000 people calling for Rajab’s release was delivered to the Bahrain embassy.
Following Nabeel Rajab’s sentencing on 22 November, MEP Ana Gomes condemned the sentence and, in a letter addressed to HR/VP Federica Mogherini, she urged the EU to engage with Bahraini authorities to ensure that all forms of ill-treatment and harassment against Nabeel Rajab are put to rest. A week later, on 4 December, together with MEP Julie Ward, MEP Soraya Post, MEP Barbara Lochbihler and MEP Javier Nart, she addressed another letter to Theresa May raising concerns over the UK’s commitment to promote human rights dialogue in Bahrain. The aforementioned MEPs strongly urged the UK Government to engage with the Bahraini authorities in order to ensure that Nabeel Rajab is treated with dignity and that all all cases of abuses and maltreatment of activists, protesters and journalists are put to an end.
On 13 June, on the anniversary of Nabeel Rajab’s arrest, 37 MEPs from different political groups had sent an open letter to the EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Federica Mogherini, urging her to call for his immediate release.
Following Rajab’s sentencing on 10 July, the European Union, United States and Norway had called for Rajab’s release. Germany deplored his sentence. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights’ office called for his unconditional release. The UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office has avoided expressing concern over Nabeel Rajab’s sentencing in its answers to four parliamentary questions since July. In their latest statement, they stated: “We continue to closely monitor the case of Nabeel Rajab and have frequently raised it with the Bahraini Government at the highest levels.” 25 British MPs have also condemned the sentence.
Judicial harassment against Nabeel Rajab
The judicial harassment which Nabeel Rajab has suffered for months is set to continue with the other trials he is facing.
[Tweets case] Mr Rajab is also on trial for “insulting a statutory body”, “disseminating false rumours in time of war” and “insulting a neighbouring country” in relation to tweets he posted on the Saudi-Arabia led coalition air strikes in Yemen and allegations of torture in Bahrain Jaw prison. If convicted, Nabeel Rajab faces 15 more years in prison. The next hearing has been postponed to 31 December 2017, when the PPO will present as a witness the security officer who confiscated Nabeel’s electronic devices following his arrest. This will be the 18th hearing since the trial began.
[Press articles case] Nabeel Rajab faces two separate accusations of “spreading false news” in relation to articles he published while in detention in The New York Times and Le Monde. These cases remain with the Public Prosecution Office for investigation.
[New set of charges] On 12 September 2017, Nabeel Rajab was presented with a new set of absurd charges in relation to social media post made when he was already in police custody in January 2017, where he had no internet access. He was not held for further investigation, suggesting that the authorities might wait until the day he walks free from prison to begin prosecution on these new charges. The charges include “spreading false news”, “inciting hatred against the regime” and “inciting non-compliance with the law” under articles 165, 168 and 172 of the Penal Code. They relate to social media posts on Twitter and Instagram accounts carrying Nabeel Rajab’s name, over which he had no control.
Ongoing campaign against human rights defenders
The targeting of Mr Rajab for his work and comments reflects the dangerous situation for human rights defenders in Bahrain. Nabeel Rajab is one of many Bahraini human rights defenders who have suffered reprisals in 2017. Between June 2016 and June 2017, at least 169 dissidents or their relatives were arrested, summoned, interrogated, prosecuted, imprisoned, banned from travel, threatened, or arbitrarily revoked of their nationality. Human rights defenders, lawyers, journalists, political activists and leaders, Shia clerics, and peaceful protesters have been particularly impacted.
Human rights defender Ebtisam Al-Sayegh was tortured and sexually assaulted by the National Security Agency in May and arrested for her work in July; while released from jail end of October, she still faces anti-terrorism charges. Three family members of UK-based campaigner Sayed Ahmed Alwadaei were arrested, tortured and sentenced to three years in prison in October.
ECDHR calls on all EU actors, including the European External Action Service and the 28 EU Member States, to condemn the sentence against Nabeel Rajab and call on Bahrain authorities to:
- immediately release Nabeel Rajab and quash his conviction, and drop all charges against him;
- undertake prompt, impartial, independent and effective investigations into the allegations of ill-treatment. The findings of the investigation must be made public and anyone suspected of criminal responsibility must be brought to justice in fair proceedings.
- uphold the right to freedom of expression and halt the harassment of those who peacefully exercise their freedom of speech or assembly.