In January 2014, Stephen Colbert interviewed Human Rights Watch’s executive director Ken Roth and asked him who the next Nelson Mandela would be. Alongside the Chinese dissident writer Liu Xiaobo, he named Bahraini human rights activist Nabeel Rajab.
Roth was not predicting then that Rajab would face an unjust and lengthy imprisonment that would stir the world’s conscience. But Rajab, who’s been in jail since June, has a court hearing this week that quite possibly will sentence him to 15 years in prison on ludicrous free expression charges. But unlike Mandela, it seems that European states aren’t all that bothered.
One of Rajab’s supposed crimes is his criticism of the Saudi-led coalition’s airstrikes in Yemen, which have bombed hospitals, schools, and markets, killing, by UN estimates, more than 1,900 civilians. His other purported offense was remarks he made on Twitter about torture at Bahrain’s notorious Jau prison.
You’d think it would be easy for governments to call for Rajab’s immediate release, as Human Rights Watch and 21 other campaign groups have asked them to do. So far, only the United States has made an explicit call for Bahrain’s ruling family to free Rajab.
Yet French foreign minister Jean-Marc Ayrault has called Mandela “a source of inspiration for all mankind”, British Middle East Minister Tobias Ellwood posted his parliamentary tribute to Mandela on his website, and Frank Walter Steinmeier has spoken of how photo of Mandela hangs on his wall in the German foreign office. Yet none these men, nor their governments, have spoken up and called for the release of Nabeel Rajab.
Is it right or trite to compare Rajab to Mandela? That’s a matter for debate, but it’s certainly reasonable to compare states’ deification of one activist with their silence over another, and Mandela – a vocal supporter of free expression – would surely have seen the double standard. Rajab is due to be sentenced on October 6. If the foreign ministers to whom NGOs have written don’t call for the charges to be dropped and for his release before then, they may have 15 years to ruminate over their spinelessness.