(Beirut) – Bahrain should immediately stop the prosecution of prominent human rights activist Nabeel Rajab, who faces up to 15 years in prison solely for charges that violate his right to free expression. Rajab’s trial resumes on September 5, 2016, on charges that include criticism of Bahrain’s participation in Saudi Arabia-led military operations in Yemen. Authorities have rejected repeated requests to release him on bail.

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

© 2014 Ahmed Al-Fardan

Bahraini authorities have also prevented three of Rajab’s colleagues at the Bahrain Center for Human Rights (BCHR) from leaving, one of whom was planning to attend the upcoming United Nations Human Rights Council meetings that begin in Geneva on September 13. Nedal al-Salman, BCHR’s head of international relations, told Human Rights Watch that on August 29, officials at Bahrain International Airport told her that a public prosecutor had imposed a travel ban on her after earlier banning two of her colleagues from leaving.

“Bahrain keeping Nabeel Rajab in a prison cell for criticising abuses shows the ruling Al Khalifa family’s deep contempt for basic human rights,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “States that claim to support peaceful activism should use the Human Rights Council session to demand Rajab’s immediate release. And they should push Bahrain to lift the restrictions placed on Nabeel’s colleagues.”

Rajab’s comments on Twitter about the Saudi-led coalition airstrikes in Yemen 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. Bahrain’s penal code provides for up to 10 years in person for anyone who “deliberately announces in wartime false or malicious news, statements or rumors.” If convicted of “offending a foreign country,” referring to Saudi Arabia, Rajab faces a 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 years under article 216 of the penal code.

“Bahrain keeping Nabeel Rajab in a prison cell for criticising abuses shows the ruling Al Khalifa family’s deep contempt for basic human rights. States that claim to support peaceful activism should use the Human Rights Council session to demand Rajab’s immediate release. And they should push Bahrain to lift the restrictions placed on Nabeel’s colleagues.

Joe Stork

Deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch

Rajab is a member of the Middle East advisory committee at Human Rights Watch.

Bahraini authorities also refused to allow BCHR staff members Enas Oun and Hussain Radhi to leave the country on August 22 and 23, 2016, respectively. Al-Salman said that authorities informed Oun and Radhi that the Criminal Investigations Directorate imposed their travel bans, but it is not clear if any of the three face criminal charges.

On June 12, Bahraini authorities prevented opposition figures from leaving to attend the 32nd session of the Human Rights Council, the key UN human rights body. The delegation included Mohamed al-Tajer, a human rights lawyer; Abdulnabi al-Ekry, a rights activist; Jalila al-Salman, the former vice-president of the dissolved Bahrain Teacher’s Society; Rula al-Saffar, a nurse and human rights activist; and Mohamed Sharaf, president of the Bahrain chapter of Transparency International.

“The member states of the Human Rights Council have an obligation to strongly criticize Bahrain and any other government that persecutes human rights defenders and obstructs the purpose of the UN human rights system,” Stork said.