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(Beirut) Bahraini authorities should drop politically motivated criminal charges against Nabeel Rajab, a human rights activist, and release him immediately. Rajab is scheduled to go on trial on May 16, 2012, for “offending an official institution” – namely, the Interior Ministry, which he criticized for allegedly ignoring attacks against boys and young protesters as well as Shia-owned businesses.

Rajab, head of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights and a member of the advisory committee of Human Rights Watch’s Middle East Division, was arrested at the Bahrain International Airport on May 5, 2012, upon his arrival from Beirut. Mohamed al-Jishi, Rajab’s lawyer, told Human Rights Watch that the public prosecutor brought the “offending” charge against Rajab for four Twitter postings in recent months in which he criticized the Interior Ministry for, in al-Jishi’s words, “not prosecuting attacks by armed gangs who have attacked civilians.”

“The charges against Nabeel Rajab are nothing more than attempts to silence one of the Bahraini government’s most prominent critics,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Authorities should immediately drop these charges and release him.”

The Public Prosecution Office says it is also holding him pending investigation into charges that he “incited illegal gatherings.”

On May 11, following the Washington visit of Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa, the US State Department announced that the Obama administration was resuming the provision of some military equipment and services for sale to Bahrain’s army, National Guard, and Coast Guard.

In November 2011 the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI) criticized the government for convicting hundreds of people solely for exercising their rights to free speech and peaceful assembly and recommended that those convictions be quashed and the people convicted freed. Bahrain’s king said he accepted the BICI’s findings and would carry out all its recommendations.

Human Rights Watch has reported on the government’s failure to adequately investigate or punish the attacks against Shia thought to be protesters as well as Shia businesses, and raised the issue in a meeting with Interior Ministry officials in April.

“Charging Nabeel Rajab ‘with offending an official institution’ is exactly the kind of speech offense that the king promised would no longer be cause for arrest,” Stork said. “Free expression is all about the right to criticize government institutions.”

The “illegal gatherings” accusation against Rajab relates to a peaceful demonstration that Rajab called for in Manama, the capital, in January. This charge too appears to be political and in any case cannot justify detaining Rajab during the investigation phase, Human Rights Watch said. The Bahraini Code of Criminal Procedure as well as international law limits pretrial detention to situations where the suspect might tamper with evidence, commit a criminal offense, or abscond.

On May 6, the day after Rajab was arrested, the official Information Affairs Authority (IAA) said that Rajab would face charges of “inciting illegal rallies and marches online by using social networking websites.” The IAA said the Interior Ministry filed a complaint with the Public Prosecution against Rajab for allegedly posting “defamatory and humiliating depictions of the public security forces.”

Human Rights Watch wrote to Bahrain’s Attorney General on May 9 requesting a copy of the Interior Ministry’s complaint, but has received no response.

Rajab had earlier accused riot police of an unprovoked attack against him on January 6 as he was leaving a peaceful protest in Manama that he had led.

In another politically motivated case, authorities have detained Zainab al-Khawaja since April 21 on charges of “holding up traffic, illegal gathering, and assaulting a public employee.” She had conducted a one-person sit-in on the main road to the Circuit Bahrain Formula One Grand Prix race to call for the release of her father, the prominent protest leader Abdulhadi al-Khawaja.He was sentenced to life in prison in June 2011 for his participation in the antigovernment protests a year ago and has been on a hunger strike since February 8, demanding freedom for himself and his co-defendants. Her next court session is scheduled for May 15.

The US State Department, in its announcement that it would resume some military equipment sales to Bahrain, said it was “mindful” of “serious unresolved human rights issues” and would continue to restrict some military items requested by the army, and all those requested by the Interior Ministry.

“We are dismayed by the Obama administration’s decision to authorize military sales to Bahrain just as another leading activist is detained and nothing has been done to address the international commission’s call to free political prisoners and hold ranking officials accountable for torture,” Stork said. “We recognize the administration didn’t want to send the crown prince home empty-handed, but this is not the way to get the ruling family to deliver on promised reforms.” 

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