(Beirut) – Bahraini authorities should immediately release the human rights activist Nabeel Rajab, Human Rights Watch said today. Rajab’s trial is scheduled to resume on December 15, 2016, on charges that inherently violate the right to free expression. Among Bahrain’s allies only the United States has publicly called for his release.
Rajab was arrested on June 13 for comments on his Twitter account that criticized Bahrain’s participation in Saudi Arabia-led military operations in Yemen. At the last hearing on October 31, the court ordered an Interior Ministry technical expert to determine whether Rajab had posted the comments. Because the court has repeatedly rejected Rajab’s request to be released on bail, he will have spent more than six months in pre-trial detention by the time the court is expected to deliver its verdict, which could result in a prison sentence of up to 15 years.
“Rajab shouldn’t have been arrested in the first place and countries like the UK, France, and Germany should be loudly calling for his immediate release,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Keeping him in detention for all these months while the government seeks an expert opinion only compounds the injustice.”
Comments on Rajab’s Twitter account about the Saudi-led coalition airstrikes in Yemen led to an earlier 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 prison 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.
The conditions of Rajab’s detention have at times appeared to amount to arbitrary punishment. He was in solitary confinement for more than two weeks after his arrest and was denied compassionate leave to attend a relative’s funeral
On September 14, 22 nongovernmental organizations including Human Rights Watch wrote to 50 governments urging them to call for Rajab’s immediate and unconditional release. Only the United States has made a public call for Najab’s release.
On September 4, the New York Times published an open letter from Rajab about human rights abuses in Bahrain. In response, in the authorities charged him on September 5 with violating article 134 of the penal code, which makes it a crime to publish “false or malicious” information abroad that is deemed to “adversely affect” the “prestige or position” of Bahrain, and could result in a three-year prison sentence. It is unclear at this stage if he will face trial on the new charge.
The United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for Non-custodial Measures state that “pre-trial detention shall be used as a means of last resort in criminal proceedings, with due regard for the investigation of the alleged offence and for the protection of society and the victim.”
“Nabeel Rajab has already spent six months in jail solely for peacefully criticizing the government,” Stork said. “It is a mark of shame that European countries that claim to respect human rights can’t muster the courage to criticise these absurd charges.”