(Beirut) – Bahraini authorities should immediately release the human rights activist Nabeel Rajab and drop all charges based on his public discussion of political issues. Authorities have repeatedly issued summonses for him to go in for questioning in the past few months, detained him from May 5 to May 28, 2012, and detained him again on June 6 for statements he made on Twitter calling for the Prime Minister to step down, and discussing his visit to a village outside of Manama.
Rajab is head of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights and a member of the advisory committee of the Human Rights Watch Middle East Division. His latest detention follows a summons from the public prosecution office following a complaint by pro-government individuals that he had made statements “publicly vilifying” them on his Twitter account.
“Authorities are using the guise of a criminal investigation to harass and punish Nabeel Rajab for speaking out against the policies of Bahrain’s ruling elite,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “They continue to compound their violations of his basic right to free speech by adding to the charges against him as he continues to criticize the government.”
Mohamed al-Jishi, Rajab’s lawyer, told Human Rights Watch that the deputy public prosecutor ordered Rajab’s arrest on the afternoon of June 6, charged him with libel under articles 364-369 of the 1976 Bahraini penal code, and ordered him held for seven days “pending investigation.” Rajab also faces several other criminal charges lodged earlier, including “incit[ing] illegal gatherings” and criticizing the Interior Ministry.
On June 6 the official Bahrain News Agency said that officials ordered Rajab’s detention after their initial investigations “confirmed” the accusations brought by a group of residents of the town of Muharraq who accused Rajab of “publicly vilifying Muharraq citizens and questioning their patriotism with disgraceful expressions posted via social networking websites.”
Mohamed al-Tajir, a lawyer and rights activist who accompanied Rajab to the public prosecutor’s office, told Human Rights Watch that 24 citizens who claim to be residents of Muharraq , a town outside Manama, the capital, had filed a complaint against Rajab, accusing him of insulting them in a Twitter message sent on June 2. Human Rights Watch has received information indicating that many of the plaintiffs are former police and military officers. The message, sent after the prime minister, Sheikh Khalifa bin Salman Al Khalifa, had visited Muharraq, called for the prime minister to step down. In the message, Rajab said: “[E]veryone knows you are not popular and if it weren’t for the need for money, [the Muharraq residents] would not have welcomed you.”
“Nabeel Rajab’s comments concern political discussion and therefore are clearly protected under his right to free speech,” Stork said. “These charges make a mockery of Bahrain’s claim that it does not punish free expression.”
Rajab had been detained on May 5 for criticizing the Interior Ministry for failing to investigate attacks by pro-government armed gangs against Shia residents. Authorities also accused Rajab separately of “incit[ing] illegal rallies and marches online by using social networking websites.”
After officials released Rajab on bail on May 28, he resumed his activism and participated in several public gatherings, and appeared on a popular show on Al Jazeera English, during which he continued his sharp criticism of Bahraini authorities and their policies.
The Bahraini Code of Criminal Procedure as well as international law limits pretrial detention to exceptional cases rather than the rule, for example situations in which the suspect might tamper with evidence, commit a criminal offense, or abscond. Al-Jishi told Human Rights Watch that usually in defamation cases authorities will not detain the accused, and noted that Rajab went to the public prosecution office willingly in response to the summons. The most severe penalty in such cases is usually a fine, al-Jishi said.