Nabeel Rajab is in prison for tweeting. This isn’t his first time being locked up for speaking his mind, though. He’s been in and out of prison for several years for giving TV interviews, posting on Facebook and writing editorials in papers like the New York Times and Le Monde. Such is how the Kingdom of Bahrain deals with its critics.
In 2016, the government of this tiny island nation in the Arabian Gulf handed down a five-year prison sentence to Rajab, a prominent human rights activist. The sentence is in retaliation to his 2015 tweets condemning torture in the infamous Jaww prison and Bahrain’s complicity in the killings of civilians in the Yemeni civil war. In early June of 2018, the Bahraini courts rejected his appeal and upheld the sentence.
Rajab, who also makes a living as a building contractor, is lauded by supporters as a “Bahraini patriot” and denounced by the Bahraini authorities as complicit in terrorism and treachery. Although his rhetoric has been one of peaceful protest for the sake of human rights reforms, his many antagonists accuse him of violent political activity for the sake of overthrowing the monarchy.
Rajab has been a thorn in the side of the Bahraini ruling class for decades. His activism began when he was in secondary school, but heated up in the 1990s, when Bahrain saw an extensive pro-democracy uprising that claimed the lives of 40 protestors. Following those protests, Rajab founded the Bahrain Human Rights Society in 2000 and the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights in 2002, of which he is currently the president.
Before the new millennium, his human rights work had to be clandestine. Following Bahrain’s independence from Britain in 1971, the country suffered under the State Security Law, an authoritarian system that allowed the arrest and imprisonment of dissenters without trial. During this period, it is alleged that human rights abuses were rampant and thousands of people were illegally detained and tortured. In 2001, after wide public pressure, King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa abolished this law and established a constitutional monarchy. However, 17 subsequent years of evidence suggest the reforms have amounted to little more than empty words.
As of 2016, Freedom House estimated that Bahrain is holding 4,000 political prisoners, including Rajab. Since the 2011 Arab Spring, pro-democracy protests in Bahrain, the Al Khalifa royal family – which has ruled the island for 250 years – has used increasingly severe tactics to silence dissent: unwarranted arrests, revocation of citizenship and the detention, torture and disappearance of activists and journalists. Some activists have also been banned from travelling, leaving them stateless and stuck in a country that treats them as traitors. In 2011, Rajab’s colleague and human rights activist Abdulhadi al-Khawaja was tortured and sentenced to life in prison for protesting.
According to CIVICUS Monitor, citizen’s rights in Bahrain are some of the most restricted in the world. The authorities deny legal representation to activists, harass critical journalists, arrest opposition leaders and use torture to extract false confessions. At least 20 activists now stand on death row, sentenced for charges of terrorism or murder. They maintain their innocence, claiming their confessions were false, made under duress during torture.
Bahrainis of all stripes want reform through gradual, peaceful means rather than violent regime change. Nevertheless, Bahrain’s government brutally represses any dissent. Rajab wrote that there “is no place for peaceful protest. All marches are banned and you can’t talk on Twitter. There is no tolerance for criticism…If you don’t allow peaceful protest, if you punish people for normal criticism, if you silence and jail the peaceful protesters, you are creating a place where some people will resort to violence. That worries me very deeply.”
In early 2011, as the mass protests known as the Arab Spring swept across the MENA region, Bahrainis began rallying for democratic reforms and religious freedom. Around 100,000 of the country’s nearly 700,000 citizens took part in these protests. Nearly two decades after the mass pro-democracy protests of the 1990s, it was a clear show of the popular attitude towards the monarchy.
Known as Bloody Thursday, a police raid on one of these protests killed four protestors and injured 300. Saudi Arabia, Bahrain’s close ally, sent 1,000 troops to help quell the protests. In the midst of it all, The Atlantic labeled Rajab as “the de-facto leader of Bahrain’s resurgent uprising.” He has, however, insisted that he was just another activist.
By April of 2012, more than 80 people had died since the beginning of the protests. Clashes with the authorities continue to this day. In May 2017, police killed five protestors (or, in their words, “outlaws”) in the town of Diraz. The protest followed the political arrest of Sheikh Isa Qassim, a Shiite cleric and leader of Bahrain’s main opposition party, Al-Wefaq.
In May 2018, ahead of this year’s polls, Bahrain’s parliament banned members of opposition groups from running for office, saying groups like Al-Wefaq encourage terrorism and violence. Al-Wefaq, a moderate Shiite Islamist movement, advocates for religious freedom for the country’s large Shiite majority, who are maligned by a system run by and for Sunnis.
Whereas most Bahrainis are Shiite, the royal Al Khalifa family and most of the political class are Sunni. Sunni elites target Shiite activists like Rajab for their anti-sectarianism, fearing they could bring Shiites to power. Religious difference is used as a basis for repression.
These dynamics play into Bahrain’s foreign relations. Shiite Iran backs the Bahraini Shiite-majority activists while Sunni Saudi Arabia gives full support to the Bahraini state, regardless of its abuses. By looking the other way for political purposes, Bahrain’s powerful friends like Saudi Arabia and the United States allow the country to continue abusing human rights.
Bahrain is home to the Fifth Fleet, a 20,000 person-strong contingent of the U.S. Navy, responsible for the Arabian Peninsula area and Indian Ocean. As such, Bahrain is a strategically important ally for the U.S., making the American government hesitant to speak up. When it has spoken up, it has never been strong-handed.
During the protests in 2011 and 2012, Rajab called out the U.S. for its limpid and almost deferential response to Bahrain’s harshly repressive crackdown. As he explained it, the U.S. reacts to human rights abuses only when it is politically advantageous to do so. If an American antagonist like Iran commits abuses, it gets harshly criticized, but if a strategic ally like Bahrain does so, it gets an insubstantial slap on the wrist.
This is a critical issue for Rajab, who calls on powerful international actors like the U.S. and U.K. to exert real pressure on Bahrain to reform. As he and many other activists see it, international influence is the most important ingredient in bringing about change and keeping the pro-democracy movement alive.
While the U.S. stays quiet, Rajab is loud. The courts have accused him, variously, of “disseminating false news, statements and rumours … that would undermine [Bahrain’s] prestige and status;” endangering relations with “the brotherly countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council;” “incitement of hatred against the regime;” incitement of non-compliance with the law;” and “participation in an illegal gathering.” After pointing out the fact that more than 100 former members of Bahrain’s Ministry of Defense have defected to the Islamic State, he was charged with “publicly insulting official institutions.”
International human rights advocacy organizations have described Rajab’s trials as farces in which his lawyers were not allowed to defend him. The courts have defended their process, claiming Rajab has received fair trials and unrestricted access to legal assistance. Amnesty International described his prison sentence as clear displays of the Bahrain’s “utter contempt for freedom of expression” and “ruthless determination to crush all forms of dissent.” According to Human Rights Watch, Rajab’s imprisonment violates the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights, which Bahrain signed in 2006. Najab describes the court system as “a tool used against … people calling for democracy and justice.”
Rajab has also been subject to consistent harassment. At a peaceful demonstration in 2005, the Bahraini Special Forces sent him to the hospital for two weeks with injuries to his spine and head, a broken finger and fractured arm. In 2011, security forces broke into his house without a warrant and brought him, blindfolded and handcuffed, to a detention center, beating him and verbally abusing him en route. Security forces have tear gassed his house twice. These are only a few of such instances.
On top of that, he has suffered smear campaigns and sanctions meant to cripple his livelihood. State and pro-government media publish a steady stream of damning dispatches that try to link Rajab with terrorist networks and violence. In the early 2010s, the authorities banned him both from doing business in Bahrain and from leaving the country.
Rajab is fully aware of the danger his work exposes him to. He is said to keep a bag packed by the door in case of a midnight raid or sudden call to trial. Even his family is not safe. His relatives have been apprehended and tortured in attempts to silence his voice. But it is clear his voice is going nowhere. He was recently offered a release from prison, under the condition that he would cease and desist criticizing the government. He refused.