(Beirut) – A Prominent Bahraini human rights activist faces up to 12 years in prison for criticizing the Saudi Arabia-led military operations in Yemen. Bahrain has been taking part in the Saudi-led coalition, whose operations have included unlawful airstrikes on markets, homes, hospitals and schools.

Nabeel Rajab on the day of his release from detention on bail, on November 2, 2014 in Manama, Bahrain.

© 2014 Ahmed Al-Fardan

The charges against Nabeel Rajab, head of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, a nongovernmental group, constitute a serious violation of his right to freedom of expression, Human Rights Watch said. The conditions of his detention also appear to amount to arbitrary punishment. He was in solitary confinement for more than two weeks after his arrest and denied compassionate leave to attend a relative’s funeral. He faces an additional three years for comments about the Bahrain government’s response to prison unrest.

“Unlawful Saudi-led airstrikes bombed markets and hospitals, killing hundreds of civilians, but the person facing prison time is the one who criticized them,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “The US and the UK, which have assisted the coalition, have a particular responsibility to insist that Bahrain drop the unlawful charges against Nabeel Rajab and immediately free him.”

Rajab’s Twitter comments led to his arrest on April 2, 2015. Authorities released him on July 13, 2015, but prosecutors did not close the cases and ordered his re-arrest on June 13, 2016. His trial began on July 12, with the next session scheduled for August 2. If convicted of spreading “false or malicious news, statements, or rumors,” Rajab faces up to 10 years in prison under article 133 of Bahrain’s penal code. If convicted of “offending a foreign country [Saudi Arabia]”, Rajab faces a maximum two year sentence under article 215 of the penal code. If convicted of “offending national institutions,” based on comments about unrest that broke out in Jaw Prison in March 2015, Rajab, faces an additional three-year sentence under article 216 of the penal code

Human Rights Watch has analyzed Rajab’s Twitter comments between March 10, 2015, when the Jaw Prison unrest broke out, and his arrest on April 2, including nine tweets about the military operations in Yemen. On March 26, 2015, Rajab tweeted that “wars bring hatred, destruction, and horrors.” Rajab also tweeted graphic images purporting to portray the effects of the bombing.

Although it is not possible to verify these images, by June 2016, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International had documented 69 unlawful airstrikes by the coalition, some of which may amount to war crimes, that had killed more than 900 civilians and hit homes, markets, hospitals, schools, civilian businesses, and mosques.

Unlawful Saudi-led airstrikes bombed markets and hospitals, killing hundreds of civilians, but the person facing prison time is the one who criticized them. The US and the UK, which have assisted the coalition, have a particular responsibility to insist that Bahrain drop the unlawful charges against Nabeel Rajab and immediately free him.

Joe Stork

Deputy Middle East Director

The UN Panel of Experts on Yemen, established by UN Security Council Resolution 2140 (2013), in a report made public on January 26, “documented 119 coalition sorties relating to violations” of the laws of war. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon has also repeatedly criticized the Saudi-led coalition’s conduct in Yemen, including placing the coalition on his annual “List of Shame” for killing and maiming children, and attacking schools and hospitals in Yemen. The secretary-general later removed the coalition from the list, telling reporters he had been threatened with the withdrawal of aid funds if he didn’t.

Under international humanitarian law, the US is a party to the armed conflict in Yemen. The US has deployed a small number of troops to Yemen and, in June 2015, a US military spokesperson stated that the US was helping the coalition with “intelligence support and intelligence sharing, targeting assistance, advisory support, and logistical support, to include aerial refueling with up to two tanker sorties a day.” The UK, sells weapons to the coalition, including cluster munitions, which have been used in Yemen in violation of the laws of war. Then-UK Prime Minister David Cameron stated in January that UK personnel “provide advice, help and training” to the Saudi military on the laws of war.

Rajab’s comments about the unrest in Jaw prison and the authorities’ response are consistent with the accounts of four former detainees who, in the aftermath of the unrest, told Human Rights Watch that security forces subjected prisoners to abuse that would appear to amount to torture and cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment. In an August 2015 letter to Human Rights Watch, the Interior Ministry Ombudsman said that his office had met with 156 inmates and that it had referred 15 formal complaints to the body charged with investigating allegations of torture, the Special Investigations Unit, “for criminal investigation.”

Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which Bahrain has ratified, protects the right to freedom of expression. In 2011, the United Nations Human Rights Committee, the body of international experts who monitor compliance with the covenant, issued guidance to state parties on their free speech obligations under article 19 that emphasized the high value the treaty places upon uninhibited expression “in circumstances of public debate concerning public figures in the political domain and public institutions.” It said that “state parties should not prohibit criticism of institutions, such as the army or the administration.”

“If the Bahraini authorities don’t like criticism of the Saudi-led airstrikes, they should focus their efforts on ensuring that their Gulf allies don’t bomb schools and hospitals,” said Stork.