In Prison for Tweets: The Case of Nabeel Rajab

“I would like to ask Mr. John Kerry now: Is this the kind of ally America wants? The kind that punishes its people for thinking, that prevents its citizens from exercising their basic rights?”—Nabeel Rajab, “Letter From a Bahraini Jail,” New York Times, September 4, 2016

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From the day he was arrested on June 13, Nabeel Rajab, the president of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, has been kept in solitary detention in conditions so squalid that outside observers have verified the “toilet and shower are unclean, unhygienic, and filled with potentially disease-carrying sludge.”

Because he is a prominent human rights activist who has met with the U.S. Secretary of State, John Kerry, Rajab’s imprisonment—and the vaguely vaporous charges that are being employed to hold him prisoner—has attracted that rare diplomatic act: a public statement from the U.S. State Department about the repression and imprisonment of an individual in an ally’s justice system. (Witness the four-plus years of silence in regards the case of one Raif Badawi, the Saudi writer who remains languishing in prison for his written thoughts, not even his activism.)

State Department spokesman Mark Toner said yesterday: “We’re obviously concerned about Nabeel Rajab’s detention and the charges filed against him, and we call on the government of Bahrain to release him. We have concerns about the state of human rights, in general, in Bahrain, and we’re engaging with the government of Bahrain on all of these issues.” The video (after the jump):

 
The start of Rajab’s trial for comments he posted online has been delayed three times: it was scheduled to start on July 12, delayed until August 2, and then on August 2, it was delayed until September 5. On September 5, it was announced that the High Criminal Court would “announce its verdict” in his case on October 6.

Despite the ominous statement that a verdict will be rendered next month with no trial, as far as the world is concerned Rajab remains in pretrial custody.

Further, it was learned on September 6, yesterday, that Bahrain’s authorities have filed new, additional charges against Rajab after a letter that he authored was published in Sunday’s New York Times. True to Rajab’s nature, he used none of his one thousand words to describe or complain about his personal treatment, other than to state that he has been kept “largely in isolation” all summer. Instead, he immediately explains to Times readers that his home country, Bahrain, “has the highest prison population per capita in the Middle East,” and has more than 4000 political prisoners. He states, “I am not alone.”

Because he met with John Kerry this year, Rajab addresses him directly in the letter:

I met Secretary of State John Kerry on his visit to Bahrain earlier this year and was glad to talk with him about our difficult situation. Mr. Kerry criticized the boycott of the 2014 election by opposition parties, although the opposition’s demand was simply for a constitutional monarchy in place of Bahrain’s autocratic system. Since that election, the leader of the largest opposition group, the Wefaq National Islamic Society, was sentenced to nine years for “promoting violence,” and the society was suspended and its assets frozen.
 
I would like to ask Mr. Kerry now: Is this the kind of ally America wants? The kind that punishes its people for thinking, that prevents its citizens from exercising their basic rights?

Bahrain’s public prosecutor, Mohammed Salah, told reporters that an individual was questioned over a complaint from the cybercrime unit accusing him of “publishing a column in a foreign newspaper in which he deliberately broadcast news, statements and false rumours that undermine the kingdom’s prestige and stature.” Only one person fits that description this week: Nabeel Rajab.

After two weeks in these deplorable conditions, Rajab was brought to a hospital in Bahrain with an irregular heartbeat. Blood tests proved that he also has a urinary tract infection and “low mononucleosis,” but he is not receiving medicine for these ailments. His family reports that he has never had circulatory problems before.

Although he is being kept in solitary confinement, his right to privacy is regularly trampled: any visits from family or his lawyers are attended by Rajab, his family members or lawyers, and two police officers, who sit with Rajab and his visitors.

The charges against him range from “insulting a statutory body,” “insulting a neighboring country,” and “disseminating false rumors in time of war,” and they stem from remarks he Tweeted and some that he merely re-Tweeted in 2015 about allegations of torture at a prison in Bahrain and about the Saudi-led war in Yemen.

His arrest this summer is officially unrelated to these charges, which were made over a year ago and appeared at one time to have been dispensed with when he was pardoned by the King last year for health issues. His arrest in June stemmed from new a new charge against him: “publishing and broadcasting false news that undermines the prestige of the state.” In television interviews in 2015 and 2016, Rajab was asked about and gave answers concerning human rights issues in Bahrain. It remains unknown how Bahrain will handle these charges against him: a separate, additional, trial after these first charges are adjudicated, or simultaneously.

The names of the judges on Bahrain’s High Criminal Court are Abdulla Al Ashraf, Ali Al Dahrani, and Sh. Hamad Bin Salman Al Khalifa, according to the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders.

Following is my column from earlier this summer about Nabeel Rajab:

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June 26, 2016: One of the inadvertent effects of Bahrain’s current campaign of aggressive repression against those it deems dissidents is the simplest one: Bahrain validates the dissidents, proves their testimonies of brutality, physical and psychological torture, and repression one-hundred percent correct.

Almost two weeks after Nabeel Rajab, the president of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, was arrested, he finally learned today what he is charged with: two violations of Bahrain’s penal code, violations of articles 133 and 216, which carry a combined maximum sentence of 13 years in prison. The charges stem from Tweets that he published last year. Tweets. His first hearing will be July 12. (Update: See above.)

One of the other effects, of course, is this: Bahrain’s campaign of repression stokes dissent, and dissenters become easier to identify, arrest, attempt to silence. Right now, Bahrain is making life dangerous for thousands of people as it places a choke-hold on parts of its population: Shia, human rights activists, those people unlucky enough to not be born in the ruling Al Khalifa family.

Bahrain uses nebulous phrases in its charges against dissidents: “offending national institutions,” “creating an extremist sectarian environment,” “threatening to use unlawful means” to effect regime change. The results of convictions under these vague charges are not at all vague: long prison sentences, often served in solitary confinement.

Rajab spent the last two weeks in solitary detention without being informed of what the charges against him are.

Also in the last two weeks, Bahrain announced that it intends to strip citizenship from Sheikh Isa Qasim, the Shia spiritual leader of the main opposition group, Al Wifaq. With yet more vague language, it accused him of “creating an extremist sectarian environment” and said he had “encouraged sectarianism and violence.” On June 14, Bahrain announced that it will seize Al Wifaq’s funds, close its headquarters, and shut it down.

Bahrain’s official news agency reported that Al Wifaq has “worked for decades on diverting from the concept of the state, [and to] secure legal cover for acts associated with extremism and terrorism.” Al Wifaq is the second-largest political party in Bahrain and in 2012 organized all the opposition parties and got them to sign a “Declaration of Non-Violence.”

Rajab’s arrest on June 13 took place on the same day that the United Nations Human Rights Council opened its 32nd session in Geneva, Switzerland. The day before that, six Bahrain human rights activists were prevented from boarding flights from Bahrain to travel to the UNHRC sessions.

Bahrain has long employed that tactic of repression: forbidding activists from leaving the country to tell the world what is happening behind closed borders. At the sessions, their absence became an important and revelatory presence.

Indeed, the events of the last month—from the forced exile of human rights activist Zainab Al-Khawaja and her two children, the travel ban imposed at the airport on the six activists, and Rajab’s arrest—make it appear that Bahrain has re-entered (if it ever left) a singularly repressive phase. After Rajab was released in July 2015, a one-year travel ban was imposed on him. As we are still within that one year time period, Rajab was not attempting to travel to Geneva for the UNHCR sessions. He was arrested anyway.

This is the third time Rajab has been arrested since the Arab Spring demonstrations in 2011. Last year he was charged with “harming civil peace” through his use of Twitter. The Tweets earned him solitary confinement.

In previous incarcerations, Rajab had been tortured but last year he was not, which he took as an encouraging sign, he told VICE News after his release. His “treatment this time was much more respectful, … [which] ‘led me to believe that they want to release me.'”

Rajab was released last July through a pardon from King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa for “health reasons.” Pardons for health reasons—or for any reason—are always a good thing, but rarely do such single-reason pardons indicate a general relaxation of the policies that may lead a repressive nation to detain, charge with crimes, convict, and imprison individuals.

Bahrain is an American ally. The U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet is stationed there; every once in a while some members of Congress with human rights interests will raise the possibility of our moving our Fifth Fleet and its several thousand sailors and millions of dollars elsewhere and just as quickly lobbyists will take to the airwaves and visit the halls of Congress in defense of our good ally, our “key Gulf ally,” Bahrain. (For those readers who are viewers of the several Sunday morning television programs devoted to politics and policy like “Meet the Press,” please be aware that most if not all of those who are brought on as “experts” about any given story find most of their expertise in their wallets as they argue on behalf of the side that spends more on public relations.)

In the last two decades, Bahrain first transformed itself from a nation that employed torture and long prison sentences without trials into one that did not. In 2001, Amnesty International celebrated the change. That is not an easy thing to accomplish. It was real, but it did not last long.

By 2007, it was known that Bahrain was employing torture once again and subjugating its Shiite majority population, much like its close ally, Saudi Arabia, which is also ruled by a Sunni dynasty, does. By 2011, human rights organizations were alarmed and Foreign Policy magazine listed Bahrain as the third-place nation out of eight nations that it called “America’s Unsavory Allies.”

Bahrain has been ruled by one family, the Al Khalifa dynasty (sometimes published as al-Khalifa), since 1783. That family still occupies about 50% of all government positions.

In 1999, the current leader, Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, inherited the title of Amir (emir) on the death of his father; in 2002, confronted with the re-institution of a parliament and democratic elections, he re-structured the government to make certain that democracy could never touch the Al Khalifa family, and he declared himself a permanent fixture in any future government, the first-ever King of Bahrain.

The Al Khalifa clan and thus the whole of the government of Bahrain are Sunni, but the majority of the population is Shiite. That sort of split between population and non-representative government always leads to a form of apartheid for the disenfranchised population, especially when the dis-empowered population is the larger one.

In 2011, as the Arab Spring protests and government crackdowns spread across the region, Bahrain’s crackdown was notoriously bloody: Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates sent troops to quell the protests. Dozens were killed. That word “torture” appears in report after report, again and again.

Bahrain’s allies in world business were dismayed and the United States briefly delayed some arms sales to the country, which sparked Bahrain to pursue a course in 2011 and 2012 that looked and sounded so much like reform that its international relationships were salvaged. Simply repeating the word “reform” many times in a row is not reform. That was Bahrain’s approach, however, and it worked: in 2015, the Obama Administration restored some military arrangements that the United States had blocked after the bloody 2011 crackdowns.

The U.S. State Department spokesman, John Kirby, said last year, “While we do not think that the human rights situation in Bahrain is adequate, … we believe it is important to recognize that the government of Bahrain has made some meaningful progress on human rights reforms and reconciliation.”

It is time to recognize that that “meaningful progress” has been reversed, and so should our positive diplomatic assessments of Bahrain.

Human rights organizations have regularly listed Bahrain among terrible violators, and the world is deaf to it. Bahrain’s money, its many arms deals (just one was a $90 million agreement with Lockheed Martin in 2013 on top of a sale of a dozen fighter jets), and its lobbying efforts keep our government willfully deaf, however.

In his opening statement at the UNHCR sessions this month, High Commissioner Prince Zeid bin Ra’ad Al-Hussain of Saudi Arabia spoke about Bahrain: “At least 250 people in Bahrain have reportedly been stripped of their citizenship by the Government because of their alleged disloyalty to the interests of the Kingdom. In addition to these severe restrictions on freedom of expression, which contravene Bahrain’s international human rights obligations, an indefinite ban on gatherings in the capital has been in place since 2013. Dozens of people–including minors–have been prosecuted for participating in protests. Repression will not eliminate people’s grievances; it will increase them.”

Bahrain’s foreign minister, Khalid Al Khalifa, responded immediately on Twitter: “We will not delay our journey and the policy of our reformist King. We will not allow the undermining of our security and stability and will not waste our time listening to the words of the High Commissioner who is powerless.”

It was and is an ominous statement. His country has spent the last two weeks putting cruel action behind those words.

The irony is that if a powerful country like Bahrain would heed the requests of the United Nations High Commissioner, the Commission would not be “powerless.” Both Bahrain and the UNHCR would benefit from enhanced international esteem. This point always seems to elude repressive governments.

Meanwhile, Nabeel Rajab, Sheikh Isa Qasim, Zainab Al-Khawaja, and thousands of others await Bahrain’s next steps further into the dark.

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3 comments

  1. vermontbookworks · September 8

    Great job Mark.

    Vermont Book Works

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: I’m with the Banned | The Gad About Town

Please comment here. Thank you, Mark.

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