According to the Bahraini government, Nabeel Rajab is a repeat offender for spreading false news. He is currently being investigated for two different crimes. One for exposing the torture of detainees in Jaw Prison and another for “disseminating false rumours in time of war” about the Saudi led air strike on Yemen.
His second charge is for “publishing and broadcasting false news that undermines the prestige of the state” in three separate interviews on Bahraini television in 2015 and 2016. During his trial Rajab also published a piece in The New York Times about his experience in prison. This publication led to his additional charge of “spreading false news and rumors about the internal situation in a bid to discredit Bahrain.”
Rajab’s New York Times Article “Letter from a Bahraini Jail,” written September 4, 2016, exposes the torturous conditions for prisoners. In some cases, according to Rajab, prisoners have been put to death “for daring to desire democracy.”
His previous sentences were from 2012 to 2014 for participating in illegal protests, and again in 2015 for insulting the kingdom’s security establishment.
However, Bahrain is no stranger to censoring the press. At the height of the Arab Spring in 2011, Ali Abdulemam, the founder of the pro-democratic news outlet Bahrain Online, was sentenced in a military court to 15 years in jail for “plotting a coup.”
This past December, a Bahraini journalist was shot dead by a suspected member of the Bahraini royal family serving in the military.
Bahrain’s royal Khalifa family has ruled the territory since 1783. Today, while Bahrain is a constitutional monarchy with an elected legislative assembly, King Hamad Bin Isa al-Khalifa appoints many of Bahrain’s politicians. Many constitute a predominantly strong Sunni presence in a country where the majority population is Shiite and lower class. Much of al-Khalifa’s rule has lead to political unrest among Shiite Bahraini citizens due to unequal opportunities provided for their sect, promoting protest and activism through the media.
Rajab’s arrest has brought attention to Bahrain’s poor treatment of journalists. Jason Stern, North Africa senior research associate for the Committee to Protect Journalists’ Middle East section, tells MediaFile that “Bahrain is one of the leading jailers of journalists in the world.”
“Rajab has always forcefully spoken out on behalf of imprisoned journalists in Bahrain,” said Stern in an interview with MediaFile. “While Nabeel Rajab is not a journalist, his repeated arrests and prosecutions show just how deeply censorship pervades in this close U.S. ally.”
Despite Bahrain’s reputation, the international community has not taken considerable steps to condemn the absence of human rights in the country and oppression of the press. Rajab originally criticized the United States of being guilty of ignoring human rights in diplomacy recently in his letter from jail.
Though the American government has openly spoken against the Bahraini government’s disregard for freedoms, it lifted an arms ban on Bahrain. Bahrain is a close ally to Saudi Arabia, and by extension enjoys closer diplomatic relations with the United States. Oil trade and Saudi investment in the U.S. have a profound effect on this bilateral relationship.
Americans for Democracy & Human Rights in Bahrain plead to the U.S. government to reinstate a small-arms ban “to further prevent violent repression of peaceful political dissent.”
Following Nabeel’s arrest the U.S. government demanded his release. The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein called for Bahrain to comply with human rights treaties. Stern added optimistically that “The day Rajab can freely advocate for press freedom in Bahrain without fear of retribution cannot come soon enough.”