Bahrain Weekly Update: Nabeel Rajab’s Detention Extended; State Dept Calls for His Release

State Dept. Calls for Release of Nabeel Rajab
Rajab Detention Extended, Verdict Expected Next Week
Zainab al-Khawaja Awaits Sentencing
Candidates Apply for Municipal and Parliamentary Elections

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Official News and Statements

State Dept. Calls for Release of Nabeel Rajab, Fair Trial for Zainab al-Khawaja: In a State Department press briefing this week, deputy spokesperson Marie Harf reiterated concerns with the Government of Bahrain’s decision to prosecute human rights defenders Nabeel Rajab and Zainab al-Khawaja. She urged Bahraini officials to drop the charges and release Rajab, standing by his right to exercise peaceful political expression. In regards to al-Khawaja’s continued detention, Harf called on the government of Bahrain to “ensure equal treatment under the law, [and] advance justice in a fair and transparent way.” She noted that the U.S. will continue to monitor her case as well as Rajab’s, explaining that an Embassy Manama official attended Rajab’s hearing on October 19. Meanwhile, Keith Harper, the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Human Rights Council, also called on Bahrain to release Rajab, saying, “no one should be jailed for a tweet.”

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Updates from Bahrain

Court Rejects Requests to Release Nabeel Rajab, Delays Verdict: On Sunday, prominent Bahraini rights activist Nabeel Rajab went on trial on the charge of “insulting public institutions.” At the hearing, Rajab denied the accusation that he made statements on his Twitter account that were critical of the state, saying that he did not intend to insult but rather meant to issue a “warning against the dangers of extremism.” Regardless of intent, he argued that his activities on social media are protected under his right to freedom of expression. Considering Rajab’s staunch declaration as a confession of a “recidivist guilt,” the prosecution requested the maximum punishment, or three years in prison, for violating Article 216 of the Bahraini Penal Code. The court decided to reject Rajab’s bail and adjourned the announcement of the verdict until October 29. Representatives from at least nine different embassies monitored the court session to ensure Rajab’s right to a fair trial.

Zainab al-Khawaja Boycotts Hearing, Remains in Detention Until Sentencing: Human rights defender Zainab al-Khawaja decided to boycott her own court hearing after Bahrain’s Lower Criminal Court moved the date of her trial to October 21 without advance warning. She was supposed to spend seven days in detention on the charge of publicly insulting the King before attending the hearing. In a tweet posted by her sister, Zainab said she made the decision as a result of ongoing judicial harassment and asked her lawyer not to attend the hearing. Ultimately, the court introduced another charge and adjourned the case. Al-Khawaja has been ordered to remain in prison until October 30 when the court will decide her sentence. The GCHR expressed serious concern with the proceedings, calling them a direct result of al-Khawaja’s peaceful human rights activities and her calls for the promotion and protection of human rights.

Hundreds of Candidates Apply for Municipal and Parliamentary Elections: According to the executive advisor for the upcoming municipal and parliamentary elections, a record number of candidates will be on the ballot for Bahrain’s parliamentary and municipal elections next month. So far 322 individuals have registered for the parliamentary election and 171 people have registered for the municipal poll, though final numbers won’t be confirmed until November 5. The Southern Governor, Sheikh Abdullah bin Rashid al-Khalifaemphasized the need for competent candidates as key to the success of elections, saying that participation reflects “loyalty to the nation.” Government spokesperson Sameera Rajab added that any irregularities found during the elections will be dealt with according to the law. Already, the chairman of the Shura council for al-Wefaq, Sayed Jameel Khadim, has been called in for interrogation by authorities. Al-Wefaq claims these measures were taken as a result of tweets he posted that were critical of the upcoming elections. Meanwhile, the Information Affairs Authority has launched a public awareness campaign aimed at combating rumors. According to the IAA, rumors, lies and misleading news have “dangerous and negative repercussions” especially during elections season and are a “gross violation of moral ethics and breach of universal humanitarian values […].”

UN Special Rapporteur on the Freedom of Assembly Releases New Report: Maina Kiai, the Special Rapporteur on the Rights to Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and of Association, has released his second report to the UN General Assembly. Regarding state practices pertaining to the rights to freedom of assembly and association of multilateral institutions, he highlights repeated threats and acts of surveillance by Bahraini officials against individuals for participating in the Human Rights Council. According to the report, activists from Bahrain who participate in OHCHR sessions have had their names and pictures taken by state representatives and reproduced in local newspapers and social media, and been accused of tarnishing the image of their respective countries. In response to these findings, Kiai makes recommendations on what can be done to improve the situation. With respect to the policing of multilateral organization assemblies by state authorities, he calls for strict guidelines that mirror international law and for assurances that local authorities have the political will and technical capacity to uphold international standards. Kiai concludes his report by urging civil society organizations to continue to report human rights violations and abuses against those engaging with multilateral institutions.

EU Criticism of Opposition Decision to Boycott Elections Draws Response: The Ambassadors of Italy, France, Germany and the UK to Bahrain released a statement noting their disappointment that Bahrain’s National Democratic Opposition societies would boycott the upcoming legislative and municipal elections on November 22 and 29. “Given the regional situation, we believe it imperative for rebuilding the trust and confidence necessary for stability and progress in Bahrain that all those committed to the democratic process participate in elections,” the statement read. A formal response submitted by the National Democratic Opposition Parties urged the Ambassadors to reconsider their position and instead call on Bahraini authorities to respond to humanitarian and political demands. A response released by the Bahrain Justice and Development Movement opposition party expressed concern that the Ambassadors of the EU would condemn the parties rather than the abuses of the Bahraini government.

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Analysis and Commentary

Maryam al-Khawaja Undeterred by Attacks against Human Rights Defenders: Maryam al-Khawaja called for international pressure on the UK and U.S. to speak out against human rights abuses in Bahrain. She claims that her release from prison was the result of international pressure created by people like Nabeel Rajab. Now, however, their roles are reversed, and it is al-Khawaja’s responsibility to raise international pressure for Rajab’s release. “I will continue with my work despite the risks that we face, because fighting for human rights should be the norm and not the exception,” she said. According to al-Khawaja, putting pressure on the closest allies to Bahrain is one of the only ways civil society can have an influence in the field of human rights.

Dooley Questions U.S. Relationship with Bahrain: Brian Dooley asked whether recent actions by Bahraini authorities that have elicited a response by the U.S. government indicate a shift in the U.S. position and relationship with its ally. Statements by the State Department and Ambassador Samantha Power condemning the detention of human rights activists indicate that growing numbers in Washington are fed up with Bahrain’s human rights abuses and growing ties with the Kremlin. While the U.S. has “failed to find its voice in publicly criticizing Bahrain’s human rights record over the last few years,” Washington is right to speak out now, says Dooley. He adds, the U.S. government should continue to name individual cases publicly, and state that there will be consequences to the U.S.-Bahraini relationship if abuses against human rights defenders don’t stop.

Bahrain Rattled by UK Decision Opening Door to Torture Investigation: According to James Dorsey, Bahrain’s response to the decision by a UK court to lift Prince Nasser bin Hamad al-Khalifa’s immunity to torture charges reflects the government’s unease regarding the pending investigation. A UK-based communications firm has attempted to clamp down on accusations implicating the Prince in the torture of political detainees after pro-democracy protests in Bahrain. The lawyers and PR representatives appeared concerned about the implications unflattering media coverage could have on Prince Nasser’s Olympic status as well as the reputation of the Asian Football Confederation (AFC). Dorsey argues that the failed Bahraini effort to micromanage reporting of Prince Nasser’s case “reflects greater sensitivity to the image and reputation of Gulf states […] who stand accused of violations of human and labor rights.”

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International & Bahraini Rights Organizations

Maryam al-Khawaja Discusses Problem with Media Coverage: Maryam al-Khawaja participated in an internet chat with Global Voices editor Sahar HabibGhazidiscussing the role sectarianism plays in Bahrain and how it affects the pro-democracy movement. Expressing her frustration with the sectarian narrative in the media, she claimed that the government of Bahrain has used sectarianism as the main tool of the crackdown in the country. Al-Khawaja pointed out several reasons she believed Bahraini authorities wanted to create a sectarian discourse. First, she argued that the regime gives itself more leeway to stay in power by framing the struggle as one among the population rather than as a popular uprising by the people against the government. Al-Khawaja also brought forward the idea that Bahraini authorities sought to exploit the Shia label as being synonymous with Hezbollah and Iran in order to paint pro-democracy activists as extremists and legitimize a government crackdown. When asked how she wanted the story of the uprising in Bahrain to be told, al-Khawaja responded by saying, “it’s the real stories of the people that need to be told.”

Human Rights Groups Continue to Call for Release of Activists: Twenty civil society organizations sent a letter to Secretary John Kerry expressing their deep concern over the recent arrest of prominent Bahraini human rights activist Nabeel Rajab. In the letter, the signatories urged Kerry and the U.S. government to publicly press the government of Bahrain to “drop all charges against Mr. Nabeel Rajab and to release him immediately.” Meanwhile, nine other human rights organizations called on the British government to speak out publicly against the continued detention of Rajab, Zainab al-Khawaja, and Ghada Jamsheer. “As a close ally to Bahrain, the UK has influence that could result in steps to release human rights defenders and political prisoners in Bahrain,” the groups stated in the letter. Speaking on the case involving Rajab, Human Rights First’s Brian Dooley said, “It’s hard to see how persisting with this case is a win for the Bahrain government internationally or locally and it only undermines its claims of reform. Keeping peaceful figures locked away is the wrong move if Bahrain wants to calm its political unrest.” Reprieve director Clive Stafford Smith further urged the British ministers to change course and stand up for Rajab “before it’s too late.”

VICE News Releases Interview with Nabeel Rajab Prior to Arrest: VICE News released a teaser trailer for a video project it will release soon, highlighting footage from an interview with Nabeel Rajab procured just weeks before he was arrested. The full length feature is also expected to show footage the news outlet obtained after spending a week undercover in Bahrain filming with protesters. In the interview segments, Rajab argues that business transactions between Bahrain and the UK are what buys the British government’s silence over Bahrain’s human rights violations. “The British government is totally behind the dictators, totally against our movement,” Rajab says. He accuses Britain of following its interests but not its moral principles. Rajab continues by calling out Western governments for their supposed support of democracy, when in fact they ignore the struggle in this part of the world. As a result, the public is now paying the price for the international community’s’ silence regarding freedoms in Bahrain.

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 – Katie Cornelius (Any questions, comments, or suggestions can be sent to