(Beirut) – Bahraini authorities should immediately release the human rights activist Nabeel Rajab and overturn his conviction for organizing and participating in “illegal” demonstrations. His conviction is a violation of his right to freedom of assembly. Rajab is president of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights and a member of the advisory committee of the Human Rights Watch Middle East Division.
Rajab was sentenced on August 16, 2012, to three years in prison for his involvement in three demonstrations between January and March 2012. Defense lawyers told Human Rights Watch that the judge issued the sentence before they could get to the hearing from a hearing in another case involving Rajab in another court. Rajab was taken to prison before he was able to meet with lawyers or his wife and children.
“This ruling shows that Bahrain’s rulers are committed to a policy of comprehensive repression,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Instead of releasing people jailed for peaceful dissent, it seems determined to lock up even more people who try to exercise their right to peaceful assembly and free expression.”
A prosecution official had earlier told Bahraini media that Rajab had incited violence. But authorities have yet to provide, in court or anywhere else, any indication of what it was he said or did that constituted incitement, Human Rights Watch said.
Rajab was already serving a three-month prison term for allegedly “insulting” the people of Muharraq, a town outside of Manama, the capital. The conviction was based on Rajab’s June 2 tweet calling for the prime minister to resign, saying he was not popular in the town. Hours after that sentence was issued on July 9, masked security officers arrested Rajab at his home.
Defense lawyers Jalila Al-Sayed and Mohamed al-Jishi told Human Rights Watch that on August 16, they first attended an appeal session in a separate court regarding Rajab’s Twitter sentence. The hearing was adjourned until August 23. They went to the “illegal gathering” hearing immediately afterward. Before they arrived, though, they learned that the judge had already ruled on the case and that security officials had taken Rajab back to prison.
“Nabeel Rajab has committed no genuine criminal offense, to judge from everything Bahraini officials have said about the case, and now it is also clear that they also violated his right to a fair trial,” Stork said.
On August 12 the defense team filed a complaint with the Supreme Judicial Council requesting the replacement of the judge assigned to the “illegal assembly” hearing after he had earlier moved up the date of the session from September 26 without consultation or “reasonable cause,” the lawyers said. The Supreme Judicial Council did not respond to the complaint.
“Rajab is a human rights activist and he was just exercising his right to peaceful gathering and was calling for justice in this country,” al-Sayed told Human Rights Watch. “He was just expressing what most Bahrainis want to say but fear prosecution if they were to say it loudly.”
In a separate case, police stopped Said Yusif al-Muhafdah, a prominent activist with the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, when he was driving with his two young daughters on August 16. He told Human Rights Watch that the police said they had received a complaint from other police at a traffic checkpoint. When they searched his car they found a poster of Rajab and asked, “Who is this son of a bitch?” When al-Muhafdah objected, he said, the policemen struck him on the head and told him to phone his wife to pick up his daughters. They then took him to a police station for questioning before releasing him nearly three hours later. Al-Muhafdah told Human Rights Watch that he filed a complaint with the public prosecution today for mistreatment by the police.
The Obama administration should raise Rajab’s case forcefully with the Bahraini government, Human Rights Watch said.