Katie Engelhart spoke to Bahraini activist Nabeel Rajab hours before he was sentenced to six months in jail for a Tweet.
In the wake of the Paris terror attacks, Bahrain’s foreign minister joined other world dignatories at the head of the city’s “unity rally,” which saw more than a million protesters take to the streets and hold up pencils — as emblems of free expression.
Nine days after that rally, Bahrain sentenced one of the world’s most legendary human rights activists to 6 months years in jail — for a tweet.
Nabeel Rajab, president of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights (BCHR) and a member of Human Rights Watch’s Advisory Committee, was convicted of insulting the Bahraini government, under Article 216 of the country’s penal code. His arrest comes after four years of near-continuous pro-democracy protests — kicked off by the Arab Spring — which have left the small Gulf country in a precarious state of perpetual anti-state uprising.
Rajab will remain at home, pending his appeal.
On the evening before his arrest, Rajab spoke with VICE News from his home in Bahrain. He sat hunched over his desk, in a modest office: his walls cluttered with posters and placards. Even-keeled by nature, Rajab was in jovial spirits: freshly awoken from an afternoon nap. But his measured tone turned indignant when the subject turned to Britain — and what Rajab considers to be London’s abandonment of the Bahraini people, in favor of cushy relations and lucrative arms deals with moneyed Gulf monarchs.
Initially, Rajab was weary of addressing the charges against him — “Because if I keep speaking about the charges against me, I accept the fact that this is a real case… whereas it is a politically-motivated case.”
Though the United States and the United Nations formally called for charges against Rajab to be dropped, most countries, including the UK, have not followed suit. “I have (spoken about) the silence of the international community,” said Rajab, “but Britain has gone a step ahead. It is not only silent, but it is supporting the government…. It is weakening a movement that is calling for democracy and human rights and supporting a repressive regime that represses its own nation.”
In December, the UK announced a “landmark” agreement to build a new £15 million ($22.8m) naval base in Bahrain. The Bahraini government will reportedly foot the bill for the base’s construction, which is opposed by several dozen Labor and Liberal Democrat parliamentarians. Last year, Britain also classified Bahrain as a “priority market” for weapons sales.
“The Bahrain government is not paying for the base,” Rajab charged. “They are paying for silence. They are paying for the support they have from the British government… And the British government are paying back.”
In a statement to VICE News, a Foreign Office spokesperson said that Britain’s ambassador to Bahrain has urged the country “to ensure due process is followed” — and that he attended Rajab’s hearing on Monday. “The UK government is supporting the government of Bahrain in its reform program, including work to help Bahrain strengthen its human rights and justice sector.”
Rajab — who Human Rights Watch director Kenneth Roth even suggested could be today’s Nelson Mandela — countered that “due process” does not exist in Bahrain, and that Britain is being hoodwinked by Bahraini officials who claim to be serious about change.
There, he was tortured and humiliated. “But I don’t speak about my torture, because what has happened to me, comparing to my colleagues, is very minor,” Rajab shrugged. “I had my uncle, my uncle he is almost 70 years now, and he was sexually raped in jail.”
Human Rights Watch has reported that “Bahrain has a well-deserved reputation for torture.” Amnesty International has chronicled the abuse of children as young as 13 who are detained for participating in pro-democracy rallies, saying they are “blindfolded, beaten and tortured… threatened with rape.”
On October 1 — within hours of returning from a two-month speaking tour in Europe, during which Rajab met with European representatives and begged them to take a harder line on Bahrain — Rajab was summoned to the Cyber Crimes Unit of Bahrain’s General Directorate of Criminal Investigations. Then he was arrested: for a tweet alleging that members of Bahrain’s security services have joined up with the Islamic State in Iraq. He was charged with “publicly insulting official institutions.”
The kingdom is understandably on edge. It has been four years since the start of the “Bahraini Uprising,” in which thousands of mainly Shia protesters seized the landmark Pearl Roundabout, in the capital of Manama.
The largest of Bahrain’s protests against the ruling Sunni minority were quickly quashed by Bahraini forces, which were backed up by troops from Saudi Arabia and the UAE — and King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa’s declaration of martial law. Yet smaller-scale clashes are still staged around the kingdom by petrol bomb-wielding Bahrainis — and are still countered with bloody force, including dead-of-night raids in Shia-majority neighbourhoods.
International attention on Bahrain — scant where it ever existed — has waned, but tumult persists. Around 15,000 protesters have reportedly been arrested, and about 3,000 remain in custody, tied up in a justice system that doles out long sentences for peaceful protests and impunity for state police.
Rajab told VICE News that his organization has been receiving more reports of protesters “being tortured systematically and dying” in jail.
On Monday, the chief of Bahrain’s opposition, Sheikh Ali Salman, was charged with attempting to overthrow the regime. His trial will start later this month.
A number of North American and European governments have been accused of keeping mum on civil rights clampdowns in the strategically important Gulf state — but human rights activists often reserve their harshest words for Britain, with its tight ties to Manama.
That criticism, to be sure, is also voiced inside Britain. A November 2013 Foreign Affairs Committee Report urged the UK to “press with greater urgency and force” for Bahrain to implement democratic reforms. Committee members advised: “If there is no significant progress by the start of 2014, the government should designate Bahrain as a “country of concern” in its next human rights report.”
But Britain has yet to even name Bahrain as a country of concern. Its response to the Foreign Affairs Committee, dated January 2014, describes Bahrain as a “critical friend.”
This has not gone unnoticed among the Bahraini populace. Rajab told VICE News that reports of British officials cozying up to Bahraini leaders have been “widely spread. The UK has a bad reputation in Bahraini society… We have seen a lot of protests against the British government.”
Over the past few weeks, Rajab said, protesters have publicly burned British flags: a symbolic act that Rajab personally disavows.
In December, Britain announced the construction of a new, permanent Royal Navy base at Mina Salman in Bahrain, where the United States houses its Fifth Fleet. The base, which will accommodate Britain’s new Queen Elizabeth-class aircraft carriers, marks its re-emergence in the Gulf — almost half a century after the Labor government withdrew British forces from all military outposts east of Aden, in what is now Yemen. The new facility is seen as part of a broader push by Westminster to project naval capacity in the Gulf region — with an eye turned to Iran.
Last year, the US Navy also announced plans to bulk up its Fifth Fleet presence in the Persian Gulf, via a $580 million base expansion in Bahrain.
British arms sales to Bahrain have also increased since the start of the Bahraini uprising. Last year’s sales reportedly totalled £18 million ($27m), and included hand grenades and machine guns. In 2013, Westminster drew particular ire for its effort to sell Bahrain 12 Typhoon fighter jets.
The UK government insists that it “takes its arms export responsibilities extremely seriously and operates some of the most rigorous arms export controls in the world.” But some parliamentarians have called on it to tighten up arms exports to countries “where there are grounds for human rights concerns,” such as Bahrain, Egypt, Tunisia and Ukraine.
The United States has also continued arms sales to Bahrain, but insists that its weapons are used only for external defence, and not for internal law-and-order. In 2011, however, The New York Times reported that a helicopter used to fire on protesters “appeared to be American-designed.”
The close relationship between Bahrain and the UK also extends to Britain’s royals. As recently as last spring, Queen Elizabeth hosted the Bahraini King at the Windsor Horse Show. Around that time, Prince Andrew withdrew, at the last minute, from a planned speaking engagement at a promotion event for Bahrain in London. During a recent trip to Bahrain, the Prince — who has close friendships with a number of Gulf monarchs — said: “I believe that what’s happening in Bahrain is a source of hope for many people in the world and a source of pride for Bahrainis.”
Western governments certainly have cause for tiptoeing around Bahrain. The country is critically placed across Iran. The British government has flagged its “national interest” in maintaining “freedom of navigation through the Straight of Hormuz” — something that requires a “positive bilateral defence relationship” with Bahrain and the other Gulf states.
And “now they are at war with ISIS,” Rajab added, using the previous name for the Islamic State. “They need Bahrain.”
The Islamic State was the subject of the original tweet that landed Rajab in hot water. It suggested that Islamic State fighters are actually coming from inside Bahraini security organizations.
Yet Rajab is not the first to voice such claims. Ala’a Shehabi, co-founder of the NGO Bahraini Watch, wrote in Foreign Policy that “Bahrain has a burgeoning problem with Salafi radicalization,” and at least 100 Bahrainis have joined up with the Islamic STATE. Shehabi also argued that Bahrain’s government’s response towards domestic jihadis has been anaemic.
Indeed, Bahrain’s information minister has reportedly tweeted messages that were sympathetic to the Islamic State’s efforts.
Rajab told VICE News that Bahrain ignores its Islamic State problem. “The Bahrain government always talks about terrorism in the newspaper, but when they talk about terrorism, they mean the opposition. They don’t mean ISIS. They don’t mean al Qaeda.” Rajab said that his organization has seen more Sunni mosques borrowing from “the ISIS ideology.”
He also accused Bahrain of actively capitalizing on the Islamic State threat: as a means of making “war with the Shias… They need the extremists at this point in time to fight the Shias, who are the majority of the opposition.”
Shortly before his verdict was issued, VICE News asked Rajab how he felt about the prospect of another rough jail term.
He said he was worried about his children, but otherwise understood that the fight for democracy “has a cost and we will pay the cost.”