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(Beirut) – Bahrain authorities should drop all criminal charges against two prominent human rights activists, and immediately release them, Human Rights Watch and the Gulf Center for Human Rights said today. The charges clearly violate their right to free expression. Bahrain should also immediately revoke all laws that violate freedom of speech, including those that criminalize insulting or defaming state institutions or the monarch.

Nabeel Rajab, one of Bahrain’s most prominent human rights defenders, is due in court on October 29, 2014, to face charges that he offended national institutions, and a possible three-year jail sentence. Zainab al-Khawaja, another leading human rights campaigner, could receive an even heavier sentence of up to seven years when she stands trial on October 30 on charges that she insulted the king of Bahrain. Among Bahrain’s main international allies, only the United States has called on the Gulf state’s government to drop the charges against Rajab and al-Khawaja and release them.

“These two courageous activists face years in jail for their peaceful criticism of a deeply repressive government, yet only the United States and Norway have made explicit calls for their release,” said Joe Stork deputy Middle East and North Africa director. “A lot of influential governments that vociferously champion free speech elsewhere seem to have become shamefully coy where rights violations in Bahrain are concerned.”

Rajab is the president of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, a director of the Gulf Centre for Human Rights, and a member of the Human Rights Watch advisory committee. On October 19, he appeared in court for the first hearing of his trial on charges that comments he made on social media violated article 216 of Bahrain’s penal code.

Rajab criticized the government for using counterterrorism laws to prosecute human rights defenders and accused Bahraini security forces of fostering violent beliefs similar to those of the Islamic State, noting that a former Interior Ministry employee had joined the extremist Islamist group. In court, Rajab’s lawyer submitted evidence to support his claims, including a YouTube clip showing Mohamed Isa al Binali, a former security officer for Bahrain’s Interior Ministry, urging other security force members to join the Islamic State.

Sources who were at the hearing told Human Rights Watch that the prosecutor urged the court to convict Rajab because he had acknowledged making the comments that form the basis of the charge. The prosecutor accused Rajab of lying when he said he did not intend to offend anyone, and also accused him of hating Bahrain, the sources said.

Bahrain authorities have previously prosecuted Rajab on charges that violated his rights, including to free assembly. In July 2012 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.

Al-Khawaja, who is eight months pregnant, faces six charges, five of which, according to information provided by her lawyer, clearly violate her right to free expression. The other charge arises from her action in ripping up a photo of the king on October 14 during a court hearing at which she faced charges that related to two previous incidents when she tore up photographs of the king. In September 2012, she was sentenced to two months in prison for ripping up a photo of King Hamad. In early February 2013, she was imprisoned on charges that included illegal gathering and insulting police officers. She was released in February 2014.

On October 3, the UN’s Office of the High Commission for Human Rights called for Rajab’s immediate release. On October 14, Norway became the first country to call for Rajab’s immediate release. Two days later, a US State Department spokesperson made the same demand and on October 20, the US State Department also called for al-Khawaja’s immediate release.

France has urged the Bahrain government to respect freedom of expression and called for “clemency” in Rajab’s case but has not explicitly called for dropping the charges. Ireland has expressed its concern. The EU has made no public call for the release of either activist. The UK, a close ally of Bahrain, has made no unilateral calls for the release of any human rights activists or government critics there since the anti-government protests of 2011.

In April 2014, Hamad ratified law 1/2014, which amends article 214 of the penal code to provide for a maximum jail term of seven years and a fine of up to 10,000 Bahraini Dinars (US$26,500) for anyone deemed to have offended the king, Bahrain’s flag, or the national emblem. Article 216 of the penal code 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.” Article 54 of the penal code provides for a maximum three-year sentence for these offenses, except where other penalties are specified.

The United Nations Human Rights Committee, which reviews state compliance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, concluded in relation to article 19, on freedom of expression, that:

The mere fact that forms of expression are considered to be insulting to a public figure is not sufficient to justify the imposition of penalties, albeit public figures may also benefit from the provisions of the Covenant. Moreover, all public figures, including those exercising the highest political authority such as heads of state and government, are legitimately subject to criticism and political opposition.

The committee also stated that “States parties should not prohibit criticism of institutions, such as the army or the administration.” Bahrain has ratified the covenant.

“The silence of the UK, the EU, and others may result in Nabeel Rajab and Zainab al-Khawaja paying a further heavy cost for their activism,” said Khalid Ibrahim, co-director of the Gulf Center for Human Rights. “Bahrain and the Gulf region in general are quickly becoming the litmus test when it comes to states’ support for freedom of expression.”

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