By Brian Dooley
Human Rights Defenders Program
He has been in custody ever since and has another year to go before completing his sentence on charges of Tweetinginformation about protests. Nabeel’s jailing was a shock to those of us who follow Bahrain closely. For the year before his arrest, Bahraini authorities had harshly cracked down on protesters calling for democracy. Thousands of people had been arrested and many of them were tortured.
But many people thought that Nabeel’s international prominence and reputation would protect him from a long prison sentence; he’s the President of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights and had won several international human rights prizes, including the Ion Ratiu award from the Woodrow Wilson Center and the Silbury Prize from UK parliamentarians in 2011. He’s one of the most prominent human rights activists in the Middle East, if not the world.
Many also believed that the international outcry over Nabeel’s arrest might result in a quick release. Instead it turned out that his jailing was part of a renewed wave of attacks on Bahraini civil society by the dictatorship.
In the past year, 31 Bahrainis have been stripped of their citizenship, almost a dozen have been prosecuted for criticizing the king on Twitter, the appeal courts have confirmed verdicts and sentences given to political prisoners in military show trials, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Torture has been denied access to the country, and many other prominent human rights defenders have been targeted and jailed, including Zainab al Khawaja.
During that time, some protestors have grown increasingly angry and violent, and the regime has still failed to hold any senior official accountable for the systematic torture that took place since February 2011.
It’s hard to see what jailing Nabeel has achieved except that it is yet another blow to the public opinion of Bahrain in the eyes of the international community. Putting Nabeel in prison has only increased his profile. He has always been a strong force for peaceful protest –constantly urging demonstrators to stay nonviolent. With his arrest, the government has inflamed an already volatile situation by trying to silence one of the voices that broke through to frustrated young protestors.
Instead of allowing Nabeel and the other human rights activists to help shape a new Bahrain with real political stability, these voices of dissent are biding their time while behind bars. Nabeel called me from prison a while ago. “I’m just bored,” he said. “We’re not allowed newspapers or books we want to read. I spend most days just sitting between the four walls.”
If the U.S. wants to protect its strategic interests in the region, which include the Bahrain-based Fifth Fleet, it needs to support real political stability. The best way to achieve that is not by propping up the dictatorship (we’ve seen how fragile other repressive U.S. allies in the region have turned out) but by encouraging the country to respect the rule of law and make fundamental human rights reforms.
Jailing Nabeel and others like him only makes instability in Bahrain more likely.
If the U.S. government wants to do what’s best for the U.S. government, it should put the release of Nabeel and the other human rights activists on the agenda of every meeting it has with Bahraini officials.
The country can really only start to recover when its civil society leaders are free to play a full part in designing its future. By keeping Nabeel is prison Bahrain is wasting a brilliant mind, angering much of its population and making real stability a more distant prospect.