Two human rights activists from the small Gulf nation of Bahrain face jail sentences for having broken a law that makes offending the King, the Bahraini flag, or the country’s institutions a criminal offense. Human Rights Watch has called on the government of Bahrain to drop all charges.
Nabeel al-Rajab is being tried for offending national institutions, for a tweet in which he accused Bahraini security forces of encouraging violent ideas similar to those of the Islamic State (IS), and mentioned that a former employee at the Ministry of Interior had joined IS. Rajab faces up to three years in jail.
The second defendant, Zainab al-Khawaja, could receive up to seven years in jail for insulting the king of Bahrain, for ripping up pictures of the king. She is also eight months pregnant.
Of all of Bahrain’s international allies, only the US has called on the oil-rich state to drop the charges.
“The Bahraini authorities have no reason to hold these two prominent activists in prison,” Fadi Al-Qadi of Human Rights Watch told The Media Line. “The charges against them have to do with freedom of expression. What they said cannot be regarded as hate speech or incitement to violence.”
The crackdown on human rights activists has caused many to flee the country. Nabeel al-Rajab’s deputy at the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, Said Yousif Al-Muhafdha, moved to Germany earlier this year after being arrested seven times, and spending between one week and seven weeks in jail each time.
“All of the human rights activists are either in jail or in exile,” Al-Muhafdha told The Media Line. “I cannot go back to Bahrain because of my human rights activity. We closed our office in Bahrain and moved it to Copenhagen.”
He said that Rajab was in Geneva speaking about human rights abuses in Bahrain to the European Parliament last month.
“Less than 24 hours after he came back he was arrested,” he said. “They don’t want him or anyone to speak about human rights abuses in Bahrain.”
Al-Rajab is being held in a special police jail far from the regular jail, says al-Muhafdha. The authorities in Bahrain do not want him to witness the human rights abuses that occur in the country’s main jail which range from lack of medical care to occasional beatings by the guards.
The second defendant Zainab al-Khawaja faces six charges, five of which violate her right to freedom of expression, says Human Rights Watch. She has served two previous stints in prison – two months in 2012 for ripping up a photo of King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa– and a year in 2013 for illegal gathering and insulting police officers.
In February 2011, demonstrators in Bahrain tried to overthrow the monarchy as part of the Arab Spring demonstrations sweeping through the Arab world. The government cracked down hard, and more than 80 people were killed when the protests were quelled in 2011 and again in 2012.
Critics have charged that the US and the international community are hesitant to criticize Bahrain because the country hosts the US Fifth Fleet which is responsible for US naval forces in the area.