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Bahrain shows its disdain for human rights defenders

January 22nd, 2015
in:Humans
by:Tamsin Walker
located in:Qatar
tags:Bahrain, Bahrain Center for Human Rights, Nabeel Rajab, tweet, Yousif Almuhafdha

The fact that Bahrain's most prominent activist was sentenced to six months in prison this week may not be entirely surprising, but it does seem to suggest an abandonment of pretence on the part of the ruling family.

Nabeel Rajab had scarcely touched down on home soil last autumn before he was served a summons that led to his subsequent arrest. The official reason was a tweet in which he wrote „many #Bahrain men who joined #terrorism & #ISIS came from security institutions and those institutions were the first ideological incubator“.

He was later released pending a trial, which after initial postponement finally came to pass on Tuesday. Found guilty of making „false claims that two ministries acted as ideological incubators that led to former employees joining terrorist and extremist groups abroad,“ he was given a six month jail term.

But the feeling among human rights defenders is that the trial, verdict and sentence have precious little to do with the infamous tweet, and everything to do with the ever more systematic way in which Bahrain’s ruling family sees fit to put its outspoken critics behind bars.

„He is the last remaining activist not in jail,“ Vice President of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights (BCHR) Yousif Almuhafdha said. „So this was going to happen, and he knew it would.“

Rajab can avoid incarceration by paying bail set at 200 Bahrain Dinar (400 €) while the case moves up to the court of appeal, but Almuhafdha says the approach is part of a manipulative, longer-term strategy.

„It doesn’t mean they’re going to drop the case, just that Nabeel has to wait for his second sentence,“ he told fairplanet. „There was a lot of international pressure to drop the charges, so the government wanted to cool things down until they sentence him again.“

That could take several months, during which time Rajab is bound by a strict travel ban. Because if there is one thing the ruling family does not want, it is to give the island state’s highest-profile activist the scope to lobby for support among policy makers in Europe and the US.

That was precisely what he had been doing in the weeks before his October arrest. Fresh out of prison after serving an earlier sentence of two years for his role in the 2011 pro-democracy demonstrations, Najab spent several weeks on an advocacy tour of Europe, meeting foreign ministers and addressing governments and the UN Human Rights Council.

Indeed his standing and reputation as a peaceful protester are such that the latest charges against him elicited a chorus of cries for the ruling family in Bahrain to back off. Even the Washington made its position clear.

„The US generally confines itself to asking for due process, transparency and a swift decision, so in having judged the case for itself, quite rightly, and calling for charges to be dropped, it went quite a lot further than it usually does,“ Brian Dooley, Human Rights First expert on the Gulf region said.

While he welcomes a clearer line from Washington, he says the fact that the government in Bahrain not only proceeded with the case regardless and then passed a guilty verdict, is indicative of a worrying development which began in the run-up to elections in November, and has continued since.

„We thought there would be some sort of new political environment after the elections, and there has been, but in the worst possible direction.“ He cites Zainab al-Khawaja who was imprisoned for three years in December after tearing up a picture of King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa and her sister Maryam who was given a one-year sentence in absencia around the same time.

„But perhaps the biggest move of all is the arrest and pending trial of the main opposition leader, Ali Salman,“ Dooley added. „There seems to be a new rule that there are no rules anymore about who to target.“

Time was, nobody thought the government would arrest an activist as well connected to the media and human rights groups as Nabeel Rajab. „He is more famous in Bahrain than members of the government,“ Almuhafdha said. „So people didn’t think the ruling family would cross that line.“

But it did. More than once. And by arresting the head of the opposition party as well, it is sending a clear message that it has moved the goalposts and is prepared to tighten its grip.

„The arrest of Ali Salman is the first big step towards eradicating the opposition,“ Brian Dooley told Fairplanet. „There are fewer and fewer avenues for civil society leaders to speak out and criticize the government. That space is tiny now.“

No matter how tiny, Almuhafdha is adamant that Bahrainis will not be cowed by a government that has had the same prime minister, Khalifah ibn Sulman al-Khalifah, since 1971. A government which according to BCHR is currently holding more than 3000 prisoners of conscience in the country’s jails. Facts like that, he says, speak for themselves.

„Arresting peaceful activists will not change the fact that Bahrain is a country that violates human rights.“

Article written by:
Tamsin Walker
Author
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Bahraini protesters hold up placards during an anti-government rally in solidarity with jailed human rights activist, Nabeel Rajab on March 22, 2013 in the village of Belad Al Qadeem, in a suburb of Manama. The International Federation for Human Rights says around 80 people have been killed in Bahrain since violence first broke out on February 14, 2011 when thousands of protesters camped out in Manama's Pearl Square, taking their cue from the Arab Spring uprisings.
Bahraini protestors hold pictures of jailed human rights activist Nabeel Rajab during an anti-government rally in the village of A'ali, south of Manama, on June 27, 2013. Bahrain, a Gulf kingdom ruled by the Sunni Al-Khalifa dynasty, was shaken in February 2011 by a protest movement led by the Shiite majority.
A Bahraini young boy shows a poster asking for the release of jailed human right activist Nabeel Rajab during an anti-regime protest in the village of al-Malkiyah, South of Manama, on August 27, 2013. National dialogue launched in February will resume on August 28, 2013 after a summer break, aimed at resolving Bahrain's political deadlock since its 2011 Shiite-led revolt.
Bahraini riot policemen gather before dispersing protesters during an anti-regime rally in solidarity with jailed human rights activist Nabeel Rajab and against the upcoming Bahrain Formula One Grand Prix in Manama on March 29, 2013. Bahrain has witnessed two years of political upheaval linked to opposition demands for a real constitutional monarchy, with the unrest claiming at least 80 lives, according to international rights groups.
A Bahraini protester shows a poster asking for the release of jailed human right activist Nabeel Rajab during an anti-regime protest in the village of al-Malkiyah, South of Manama, on August 27, 2013. National dialogue launched in February will resume on August 28, 2013 after a summer break, aimed at resolving Bahrain's political deadlock since its 2011 Shiite-led revolt.

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