Bahraini human rights activist Nabeel Rajab arrives for his appeal hearing at court in Manama, February 11, 2015.

© 2015 Reuters

(Beirut) – The Bahrain High Criminal Court on February 21, 2018, sentenced the prominent human rights defender Nabeel Rajab to five years in prison for criticizing torture in a Bahrain prison and Saudi airstrikes in Yemen, Human Rights Watch said today. The new sentence is in addition to the two-year sentence that Rajab is already serving on other charges related to peaceful expression.

“The new prison sentence for Nabeel Rajab is only the latest chapter in years of persecution and efforts to silence an activist solely for his efforts to sound the alarm on human rights abuses,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Rajab should never have faced such charges or spent one day in prison for them.”

Authorities first arrested Rajab, head of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights (BCHR) and deputy secretary general of the International Federation of Human Rights (FIDH), on April 2, 2015, and filed charges based on his allegations on social media of torture in Bahrain’s Jaw Prison. Authorities released him provisionally on humanitarian grounds on July 13, 2015, but re-arrested him on June 13, 2016, for criticism in television interviews of the Bahraini authorities’ refusal to allow journalists and rights groups into the country.

This criticism led to a two-year prison term that a criminal court imposed in July 2017. The Court of Cassation upheld that sentence on January 15.

The new sentence is based on Rajab’s tweets on the Saudi-led military operations in Yemen, which have killed thousands of civilians, and on alleged torture in Jaw Prison.

The BCHR reported that the Bahrain High Criminal Court had convicted Rajab based on article 133 of the Criminal Code for “disseminating false rumors in time of war”; Article 215 on “offending a foreign country” – in this case Saudi Arabia; and Article 216 for “insulting a statutory body,” based on comments to the media in March 2015 about alleged use of excessive force by security forces to quell unrest at Jaw Prison. Rajab can appeal this sentence.

Rajab, who also spent eight months in pretrial detention, appears at times to have been subjected to treatment that may amount to arbitrary punishment. He was held in solitary confinement for more than two weeks after his arrest in June 2016. Rajab’s health also deteriorated while in detention, his family has said. While in detention he has had several surgical procedures, suffered heart palpitations that led to hospitalization, and developed other medical conditions, including a low white blood cell count, his family said.

Rajab is a member of the Human Rights Watch Middle East and North Africa Advisory Committee.