(Beirut) – Bahraini authorities have charged a prominent human rights lawyer with offenses that violate his right to free expression.
Mohamed al-Tajer, who has defended opposition figures and rights activists, told Human Rights Watch that a public prosecutor brought three charges against him on November 10, 2016: insulting government institutions, inciting hatred of a religious sect, and misusing a telecommunications appliance. In a private WhatsApp voice message that public prosecutors cited in support of the charges, al-Tajer says, “It’s clear that there’s a team in the public prosecution and Cybercrimes division whose only job is to sit at computers and intercept every word about Sunnis, Saudi Arabia, hatred of the regime, or insults against the king.”
“Bahraini authorities have targeted journalists, activists, clerics, and politicians for peaceful dissent in the last few months, so it was only a matter of time before they came for the lawyers,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Al-Tajer is facing charges because he stated the obvious: Bahraini authorities are snooping on their citizens and anyone who steps out of line online faces jail time.”
Al-Tajer said that a public prosecutor interrogated him for an hour about the WhatsApp voice message sent in early 2016. The prosecutor also interrogated him about a tweet he posted on February 14 that said, in English, “history tells stories of falling dictators, but the lesson is never learnt #bahrain,” and his retweet of a July 24 comment on Twitter referring to the government as “the regime of prohibition.” Al-Tajer said he does not know how the authorities obtained a copy of the voice message. Criminalizing peaceful opposition to state authorities is a serious violation of freedom of expression, Human Rights Watch said.
Al-Tajer faces prison sentences totaling more than five years if convicted of all three charges. Article 172 of the penal code provides for sentences of up to two years for inciting hatred of a religious sect. Article 216 sets sentences of up to three years for insulting government institutions, and article 290 sets sentences of up to six months for “misusing a telecommunications appliance.”
In June, the authorities prevented al-Tajer and other activists from leaving the country to participate in a United Nations human rights event in Geneva. The UN high commissioner for human rights, Zeid bin Ra’ad Al Hussain, and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon both criticized the travel bans.
Al-Tajer spent four months in detention in 2011 after masked men arrested him at his home in April, and prosecutors charged him with inciting hatred of the government. An appeal court overturned an initial conviction, but al-Tajer has alleged that he was tortured and mistreated in detention.
In November 2015, authorities arrested his brother, Ali al-Tajer, a safety engineer in the construction industry, and charged him with “joining an illegal terrorist organization to overthrow the government by force” and “training individuals on the use of weapons for terrorist purposes.” Ali al-Tajer denied the charges and is currently on trial. An Amnesty International report released on November 21, 2016, was harshly critical of the Bahraini authorities’ response to Ali al-Tajer’s torture allegations.
“These charges against Mohamed al-Tajer appear to confirm his suspicions about the authorities’ surveillance activities and betray their woeful disregard for free speech,” Stork said.