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Nabeel Rajab and the high cost of dissent Open in fullscreen

Bill Law

Nabeel Rajab and the high cost of dissent

Nabeel Rajab when he was released from jail in November (AFP)

Date of publication: 21 January, 2015

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The New Arab interviewed Nabeel Rajab moments after he had learned of his conviction and sentencing for writing a tweet that was 'critical' of the Bahraini army and security services.
Nabeel Rajab was remarkably calm for a man who had just been sentenced to six months in jail for a tweet. But then he has grown used to being arrested, charged and brought to court. The veteran Bahraini human rights activist has been in and out of jail – most recently serving a two year term – for criticising the government and the ruling al-Khalifa family.

He wasn’t in court when the sentence was handed down. "I knew that once sentence was passed they would have detained me immediately. I wanted to spend time with my family and think what next to do."

His lawyers have already said he will appeal against the decision and while that process is ongoing he may avoid being sent to jail.

"I don’t know how long the appeal will take, it could take six months, it could take a year but the authorities haven't lifted the travel ban. I am a prisoner inside the country."

Rajab said he was surprised at the conviction: "I was expecting I would be freed but when you look at the situation in Bahrain, every activist is being targeted. There is no tolerance for any criticism."

He was charged with insulting a public institution and the army in a tweet he posted in September of last year. In the tweet, he alleged that Bahrain's security institutions were serving as what he called an "ideological incubator" for jihadists fighting in Iraq and Syria.

It wasn't the tweet that upset them. That was the excuse. They wanted to stop my international work. They want to silence me, stop me travelling abroad

"It wasn't the tweet that upset them. That was the excuse. They wanted to stop my international work. They want to silence me, stop me travelling abroad."

After his release from jail last year, Rajab spent three months lobbying European governments to support human rights in the Gulf island state and to challenge Bahraini government claims that it had carried out significant reforms.

Bahrain has been wracked by nearly four years of unrest after the government crushed a largely peaceful protest movement with force.

The kingdom, which has a majority Shia Muslim population, has been ruled for more than 200 years by the Sunni al-Khalifas.

Read also: The UK and Bahrain. Ignoring the record

In 2011, dozens were killed, thousands imprisoned and thousands more sacked from their jobs. The vast majority of victims were Shia.

And while some reforms of the police and security services have been carried out, in Shia towns and villages outside the capital Manama anger continues to run high.

Leading democracy activists together with young street protesters have been sentenced to lengthy jail terms while the tiny handful of police officers who have been charged and convicted of serious crimes, including beating prisoners to death in detention, have escaped with light sentences.

Leading democracy activists together with young street protesters have been sentenced to lengthy jail terms while the tiny handful of police officers who have been charged and convicted of serious crimes

That, coupled with a relentless campaign backed by tough new laws to stamp out dissent, has created a culture of silence and fear within the Shia community.

"There is no place for peaceful protest. All marches are banned and you can't talk on Twitter. There is no tolerance for any criticism. The government is filling the jails with human rights activists and opposition politicians, all of us advocates for peaceful change.

"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."

Another prominent activist Zainab al-Khawaja recently received a three-year sentence for tearing up a picture of the king. Three weeks ago Sheikh Ali Salman, the leader of the opposition al-Wefaq political society and widely considered a moderate, was arrested and remains in detention. And independent journalists in the country, a brave but diminishing breed, are under increasing pressure to toe the government line.

There is no place for peaceful protest. All marches are banned and you can't talk on Twitter. There is no tolerance for any criticism

Rajab’s characteristically stoic brand of optimism has been dented by the relentless and very effective campaign the authorities have carried out. And by how, he believes, the international community and Britain in particular have bought into the government narrative.

"I am not optimistic. We have had nothing from the international community, especially the UK. Britain has sacrificed our efforts and struggle for their commercial interests, for arms sales, for a military base and for their regional security concerns."

Bahrain is not alone, Rajab added. Other Gulf states like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are carrying out similar campaigns using anti-terror legislation against human rights activists.

"They are mixing the cards marked human rights with terrorism and filling the jails with peaceful activists calling for change and there is complete silence from the international community."

Suppressing those who argue for peaceful change and using the threat of terrorism and the issue of security to do so may be of benefit to the Khalifas and the other ruling Gulf families but Rajab argues that is only in the short term and is not in the interest of their subjects. Longer term, he thinks, the outlook is bleak.

Facing another bout in jail for his democratic beliefs Rajab gave a gloomy prognosis: "We are not heading to a better future."

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