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

© 2015 Reuters

(Beirut) – The Bahraini government should drop its charges against a prominent Bahraini human rights defender for peacefully expressing his views and order his immediate release, Human Rights Watch said today. The Manama Appeals Court is scheduled to issue its final ruling on June 5, 2018 on an appeal by the rights defender, Nabeel Rajab.

The Bahrain High Criminal Court on February 21 sentenced Rajab to five years in prison for tweets criticizing alleged torture in Bahrain’s Jaw Prison and the Saudi-led military operations in Yemen. Rajab is serving a two-year prison sentence on other charges related to peaceful expression and has been detained since June 13, 2016. His relatives say he has medical ailments that prison authorities are not treating adequately.

“Nothing that Nabeel Rajab posted on human rights in Bahrain or the humanitarian crisis in Yemen justifies his spending a single minute behind bars,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “These charges inherently violate Rajab’s basic human rights and should have never been brought in the first place.”

Rajab is one of dozens of human rights defenders, political activists, opposition leaders and journalists that authorities have unjustly imprisoned since quelling anti-government protests in 2011.

Public prosecution documents Human Rights Watch reviewed cite three criminal code provisions for the charges against him. The documents cite article 133 of the Criminal Code, for “deliberately disseminating in wartime false or malicious news, statements or rumors […] so as to cause damage to military preparations.” They also cite Article 215 for “publicly offending a foreign country,” in this case Saudi Arabia; and Article 216 for “insulting a statutory body,” in this case the Ministry of Interior and the Reform and Rehabilitation Services, for. Rajab’s tweets alleging the use of excessive force by Jordanian security forces to quell unrest at Jaw Prison and security forces’ torture and ill treatment there.

Human Rights Watch said that the charges against Rajab are a clear violation of his right to free expression,  protected under article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which Bahrain ratified in 2006.

Rajab, who suffers from a skin condition, is held in a cramped, dirty, and insect-infested cell at Jaw Prison no bigger than 3-by-3 meters that he shares with five other detainees, his relatives said. Prison authorities keep the men locked in their cell 23 hours a day. Although Rajab needs further surgery for his skin condition, authorities have yet to transfer him to a hospital for the procedure, his relatives said.

Authorities arrested Rajab on April 2, 2015, and filed charges based on his allegations on social media of torture in Jaw Prison. Authorities released Rajab on humanitarian grounds on July 13, 2015.

But on June 13, 2016, authorities again arrested Rajab, this time for his criticism during a television interview of their refusal to allow journalists and human rights groups into the country. A court sentenced Rajab to a two-year prison term for this criticism, on charges of “spreading false news and rumors about the internal situation in the Kingdom, which undermines the state prestige and status.” The Court of Cassation upheld that sentence on January 15, 2018. He is due to be released when he completes his sentence this month, unless the new conviction and sentence in the tweeting case are upheld.

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