One year ago, on 13 June 2016, Nabeel Rajab was arrested from his home, one day before he was due to participate in the United Nations Human Rights Council. One year on, Nabeel Rajab remains in jail; his health has gravely deteriorated, and he has spent extensive periods of time in solitary confinement.
Nabeel Rajab is a leading human rights defender in the Arab world, President of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights (BCHR), Founding Director of the Gulf Center for Human Rights (GCHR), Deputy Secretary General of FIDH and a member of Human Rights Watch’s Middle East Advisory Committee.
For 365 days Rajab has been held in detention, sometimes in squalid conditions, while awaiting trial, on charges relating to tweets and retweets made on social media related to the Saudi-led war in Yemen, and torture in Jau prison, as well as interviews he gave to foreign media outlets. Freedom of expression is a right protected by international law yet Rajab is now facing up to 18 years in prison for using his voice to alert the world about human rights abuses in the Arab region.
Since 2005, Rajab has been relentlessly persecuted for his human rights activities and jailed repeatedly on charges in violation of his right to freedom of expression, assembly and opinion. Rajab has been imprisoned multiple times since he came to the forefront of human rights activism in Bahrain. In 2011, he was briefly detained for his role in the pro-democracy protests, after being arrested in his home by dozens of masked men. He was allegedly blindfolded, handcuffed, and put in the back of a car before being verbally abused, beaten, and threatened with rape. In the following year, 2012, Rajab was jailed for two years for “calling for an illegal gathering.” In 2015, Rajab served a six-month prison sentence for “publicly insulting official institutions” on social media.
Rajab was most recently arrested on 13 June 2016 and charged with “spreading false information and malicious rumours about domestic matters, with the aim of discrediting and adversely affecting the prestige of the state,” in relation to televised interviews with the media. These charges carry a maximum sentence of three years. In another case, charges relating to tweets and retweets include “spreading rumours in wartime,” “insulting a neighbouring country” and “insulting a statutory body.” If convicted of these charges Rajab faces up to 15 years in prison. There are also pending charges for articles Rajab published in the New York Times and Le Monde while detained. The publication of these articles resulted in Rajab being taken for interrogation and new charges being brought against him. Both articles called on the international community to address the ongoing human rights abuses in Bahrain, including describing poor conditions in detention.
During this past year of detention Rajab has spent extensive periods of time in solitary confinement, and has suffered from deteriorating health, exacerbated by poor conditions in jail.
Rajab has a history of medical conditions, including hypertension, gastritis, and degenerative disk disease. During his current period of detention, Rajab has been treated for gallbladder disease; he underwent a surgical cholecystectomy due to biliary colic and recurrent abdominal pain. Most recently, on 5 April 2017, Rajab underwent surgery for bleeding ulcers. According to family members, Rajab was forced to wear dirty clothes soaked with blood and was denied access to hygiene products, despite having a deep surgical wound at risk of infection. Two days after the surgery, Rajab was returned to solitary confinement, where the unsanitary conditions increased the risk of post-surgical infection and other medical complications.
The day after he was returned to jail, Rajab became increasingly unwell, and shortly after a visit with his family, he was rushed to Qaala police clinic for emergency treatment. Rajab is receiving treatment related to complications following his surgery, after the wound became infected. At the time of writing Rajab, remains in Qaala police clinic. The clinic is not a public hospital but a division of the Ministry of Interior. Information received by BCHR indicates that Rajab’s weakened immune system is slowing the recovery process. Rajab remains under the supervision of Criminal Investigation Directorate (CID) officers at all times.
The detention of Rajab is not only in violation of international regulations concerning freedom of expression and association, but also in violation of international protocols governing the rights of prisoners and detained persons. Rajab has been held in solitary confinement for extensive periods of time, and has been denied access to adequate and timely medical care on numerous occasions.
In the past year, members of the international community, including UN bodies and government delegations, have expressed concerns over the continued pre-trial detention of Rajab, the extensive use of solitary confinement, and his limited access to medical care. Most recently, the UN Committee Against Torture expressed concern over the amount of time that Rajab had been remanded in solitary confinement, stating that if used extensively solitary confinement can constitute cruel and unusual punishment, as defined by the Convention Against Torture.
In May 2017, during Bahrain’s annual UN Universal Periodic Review, UN member states expressed concern at the detention and mistreatment of human rights defenders, including Rajab. On 14 March 2017, at the 34th session of the Human Rights Council, the Swiss delegation called for the release of human rights defenders in Bahrain, including Rajab. In December 2016, the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights expressed serious concerns about the ongoing prosecution of Rajab, and called for his immediate and unconditional release. Prior to this, in October 2016, the United States State Department rejected the charges against Rajab and called for his release; this was later confirmed by then US ambassador to the UN, Samantha Power, who also called for his immediate release. It has also recently become known that one of the conditions attached to the US sale of F-16 fighter jets to Bahrain by President Barack Obama was the release of Rajab.
In spite of the expression of concern, and the call for his release, issued by numerous international organisations, and governmental bodies, the Bahraini authorities continue to retain Rajab in pretrial custody, and often in solitary confinement.
The Bahrain Center for Human Rights appeals for its President Nabeel Rajab to be released immediately, and for the charges against him to be dropped. BCHR also urges the government of Bahrain to ensure that Rajab and other political prisoners receive adequate and timely medical care in line with international protocols and regulations pertaining to prisoners and detained individuals.