(Beirut) – The Bahraini authorities should immediately release the prominent human rights activist Nabeel Rajab and overturn his conviction for posting an “insulting” tweet, which violates his freedom of expression. The authorities should immediately suspend, and then abolish, the use of any criminal laws that violate freedom of expression, including those that criminalize “insults” and peaceful criticism of the government.
On July 9, 2012, the Fifth Minor Criminal Court in Manama sentenced Rajab to three months imprisonment for allegedly “insulting” the people of Muharraq, a village outside of Manama, over a Twitter posting on June 2. Rajab’s tweet called for the prime minister to resign and asserted he was not popular in the village. Hours after the ruling, masked men arrested Rajab at his home, witnesses told Human Rights Watch. Rajab is head of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights (BCHR) and a member of the advisory committee of Human Rights Watch’s Middle East and North Africa Division.
“If anyone is guilty of insult today, it is the Bahraini government, which has reminded citizens they’re not free to express political views,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Using masked men to arrest Rajab, a champion of peaceful protest and human rights, would be laughable if the reality wasn’t so tragic.”
Mohamed al-Jishi, Rajab’s lawyer, told Human Rights Watch that after the ruling he immediately filed an appeal and the court is set to review the case on September 11. “This was really surprising to see a court issue a ruling within a couple of hours of the authorities arresting the defendant,” he said. “They usually wait until the Court of Appeals issues a judgment.”
A video examined by Human Rights Watch appears to show several masked men wearing yellow jackets entering Rajab’s house and arresting him while several policemen and vehicles waited outside. Sayed Yousif Almuhafdha, a member of BCHR, who was at Rajab’s home during the arrest and made the video, told Human Rights Watch that the police officers showed an arrest warrant but did not say where they would take Rajab. “We found out a few hours later that they took him to al-Hoora police station (in Manama),” he said.
Authorities detained Rajab from June 6 to June 27 for the statements he made on Twitter calling for the prime minister, Sheikh Khalifa bin Salman Al Khalifa, to step down after his visit to Muharraq. 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.” The government charged Rajab with “insulting” the people of Muharraq.
“Everyone knows this has nothing to do with the people of Muharraq and everything to do with the prime minister’s delicate feelings,” said Whitson. “The government has no business putting people in jail for their political views, nor indeed should it jail anyone for any sort of insults.”
Authorities have brought a number of charges against Rajab in the past few months that violate his rights, especially to freedom of expression. They detained him from May 5 to May 28 for allegedly “insulting” the Interior Ministry and fined him 300 Dinars (US$800) for “insulting” the Ministry of Interior. Authorities have also separately charged Rajab with “inciting illegal rallies and marches online by using social networking websites.”
In a separate case, an Administrative Court on July 9 also ordered the dissolution of the opposition group Islamic Action Association (Amal) for violating provisions of the 2006 Political Associations’ law.On June 3, the Ministry of Justice filed a lawsuit accusing the group of a “series of flagrant and continuous violations,” such as failing to “convene a general conference for more than four years,” “taking its decisions from a religious authority that calls openly for violence and incites hatred,” and “failing to submit a copy of its annual budget as per the law (of political societies’) provisions.”
The court held the first session in this case on June 19, in which it decided to adjourn the trial to October 7, until Sheikh Mohammad Ali al-Mahfoodh, the imprisoned leader of Amal, could authorize a lawyer to represent the group, but then it issued the surprise verdict. Abdullah al-Shamlawi, a defense lawyer for Amal, told Human Rights Watch: “Just a few days ago we were surprised to see tweets by a (pro-government) newspaper saying that the court will issue its judgment on July 9. This was the second session of the trial. We didn’t even present our defense.” He said the defense lawyers will appeal the ruling.
“Authorities accuse Amal of failing to hold a convention while they keep the leader of the group behind bars,” Whitson said. “Dissolving a legally registered political group for technical violations, before they can defend themselves in court, is an attempt to shut down Bahrain’s political opposition.”
“Al-Mahfoodh, the leader of Amal, was among 21 political activists convicted by a special military court on June 22, 2011, for offenses that violate freedom of speech such as “inciting hatred against the regime,” “broadcasting false and tendentious news and rumors,” and “calling for protests” between February 14 and March 15, 2011. The court sentenced al-Mahfoodh to 10 years in prison and others to prison terms ranging from two years to life in prison. A High Court of Appeal is currently reviewing the convictions of the 21 political activists.
“The Bahraini government seems determined to repeat its recipe for conflict and unrest, silencing critical voices, jailing opposition, and disbanding political groups,” Whitson said. “In attacking the opposition, the government isn’t even trying to maintain a façade of reform.”