(Beirut, October 3, 2014) – Bahrain authorities arrested a prominent rights activist on October 1, 2014, after he criticized the government. Nabeel Rajab, the activist, faces charges that he “offended national institutions” in comments on social media on September 28.
Rajab had returned to Bahrain on September 30 from Europe, where he had made public appearances criticizing the Bahraini government’s human rights record and calling for stronger international action against Bahrain. Bahrain should drop the charges against Rajab and release him immediately, Human Rights Watch said.
“These charges show that Bahrain’s rulers are determined to silence one of their most outspoken critics,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East and North Africa director. “In arresting a peaceful critic, Bahrain’s government has shown its contempt for basic rights like free speech.”
In his comments on September 28, Rajab criticized the government for using counterterrorism laws to prosecute human rights defenders and charged that Bahraini security forces foster violent beliefs akin to those of the Islamic State. He noted that a former Interior Ministry employee had joined the extremist Islamist group.
Mohamed Isa al Binali, a former security officer with the Interior Ministry, appears in a YouTube clip urging other security force members to defect. On September 4, the Bahrain Ministry of Interior tweeted that “former officer Mohammed Isa Al Binali was terminated from employment for failure to appear at work.”
One of Rajab’s tweets said, “Many #Bahrain men who joined #terrorism & #ISIS came from security institutions and those institutions were the first ideological incubator.”
On October 1, Rajab received a written summons to appear at the cybercrimes unit of the Criminal Investigation Directorate. His lawyer, Jalila al-Sayed, told Human Rights Watch that officers questioned him for 45 minutes about his comments, but prevented her from taking notes. The officers arrested him for violating article 216 of the penal code and referred his case to the public prosecutor. Article 216 states that “A person shall be liable for imprisonment or payment of a fine if he offends by any method of expression the National Assembly, or other constitutional institutions, the army, law courts, authorities or government agencies,” and is punishable by up to three years in prison.
Al-Sayed was also present on October 2 when the public prosecutor interrogated Rajab. Al-Sayed told Human Rights Watch that Rajab answered the prosecutor’s questions freely but that the prosecutor refused to include what she characterized as exculpatory evidence in the formal record of the interrogation. This included video clips of former members of the Bahraini security forces encouraging current members to join ISIS forces, she said.
The public prosecutor ordered Rajab’s detention for another seven days while investigations continue.
The UN Human Rights Committee, the body of independent experts that monitors state compliance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which Bahrain has ratified, issued an authoritative interpretation on the scope of the right to freedom of expression and opinion. In its General Comment 34, the committee stated that “In circumstances of public debate concerning public figures in the political domain and public institutions, the value placed by the Covenant upon uninhibited expression is particularly high.” It also stated that “states parties should not prohibit criticism of institutions, such as the army or the administration.”
Bahrain authorities have previously prosecuted Rajab on politically motivated charges. He was detained from May 5 to May 28, 2012, for Twitter remarks criticizing the Interior Ministry for failing to investigate attacks by what Rajab said were pro-government gangs against Shia residents. On June 28, 2012, a criminal court fined him 300 Bahraini Dinars (US$790) in that case.
Authorities again detained Rajab on June 6, 2012, for another Twitter remark calling for Prime Minister Khalifa bin Salman al Khalifa to step down. On July 9, 2012, a criminal court convicted and sentenced him to three months in prison on that charge. A court of appeal overturned that verdict, but in a separate case a criminal court sentenced him to three years in prison for organizing and participating in three demonstrations between January and March 2012. The authorities presented no evidence that Rajab advocated or engaged in violence. Rajab was released on May 24, 2014, after serving two years in prison.
Bahrain’s close allies, the United States and the United Kingdom, should press vigorously for Rajab’s immediate release, Human Rights Watch said.
“Nabeel Rajab has consistently criticized the Bahrain government when it deserves to be criticized, peacefully and at great personal cost,” Stork said. “The US and the UK haven’t pressed Bahrain hard enough to counter its widespread repression and intolerance of public criticism.”