(Beirut) – Bahraini authorities arrested the prominent human rights activist Nabeel Rajab on April 2, 2015, apparently over his allegations on social media of torture in a Bahraini prison. Authorities should release him immediately and drop all charges that violate his right to free expression.
A video seen by Human Rights Watch shows Rajab reading aloud from the arrest warrant presented to him during his arrest. In the video, he says that the warrant is related to his tweets about Jaw Prison and his accusation that prison authorities tortured prisoners. The Interior Ministry announced on Twitter on April 2 that Rajab had been arrested for “publishing information that would harm the civil peace and insulting a statutory body.” This is the second time in six months that authorities have arrested Rajab for criticizing the government.
“Bahraini authorities should be investigating these allegations of torture in Jaw Prison, not arresting people who raise concerns about it,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East and North Africa director. “Bahrain’s allies, especially the United States and the United Kingdom, should call for Rajab’s release without delay.”
Rajab’s son Adam, 17, videotaped the arrest at their home in the village of Bani Jamra at about 5 p.m. The video shows Rajab reading a 2-page arrest warrant given to him by a plain-clothes police officer. He tells his son he is being taken to the cybercrimes unit of the Criminal Investigations Directorate. Rajab is faced by eight police officers, three of whom also videotaped the arrest. In the video, another nine officers are standing across the street, four in riot gear, one of whom is holding what appears to be a rifle.
Rajab has also alleged that security forces used excessive force to quell unrest at Jaw Prison on March 10. In an opinion piece in the Huffington Post on March 27 he wrote:
The police broke through the barricades and flushed the inmates out with teargas. They marched the inmates out into the courtyards, where every one of them was beaten and humiliated by the police. The forces took shifts terrorising the inmates, passing the baton between Bahraini police and Jordanian units. The inmates were shot at with shotguns and sound grenades, aimed at their bodies. Inmates were forced to address the officers as ‘master’, beaten if they asked to be taken to the toilet (where they were given 30 seconds to relieve themselves), beaten during meals, and forced to insult their families or face more beatings.
According to credible local sources, at least 80 inmates have still made no contact with their families since the unrest on March 10. Human Rights Watch viewed images circulating on social media purporting to show security forces using teargas inside the prison, along with injured prisoners. Human Rights Watch is unable to verify the provenance of the videos. The authorities should investigate the alleged excessive use of force, Human Rights Watch said.
Rajab posted numerous tweets about the violence in Jaw Prison. On March 17, Rajab tweeted that he had met with a recently released inmate. The photographs accompanying the tweet “will tell you how they were treated,” he wrote. They show abrasions and contusions on the man’s back and injuries to his right arm.
Bahrain authorities have previously prosecuted Rajab on politically motivated charges. On October 1, 2014, authorities arrested and charged Rajab with “offending national institutions” after he criticized the government on social media for using counterterrorism laws to prosecute human rights defenders and said that Bahraini security forces foster violent beliefs akin to those of the extremist group Islamic State (also known as ISIS). He was sentenced to six months in prison on January 20, 2015, but had been out on bail pending an appeal.
Authorities earlier held Rajab from May 5 to May 28, 2012, for Twitter remarks criticizing the Interior Ministry for failing to investigate attacks by what Rajab alleged were pro-government gangs against Shia residents.
Authorities detained Rajab a few weeks later, 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 two years in prison.
The United Nations 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.”