— Index on Censorship (@IndexCensorship) March 14, 2015
This is the tweet that Index on Censorship shared on 14 March 2015 when Nabeel Rajab, the Bahraini human rights campaigner, was challenging a six-month suspended sentence for “denigrating government institutions” for comments about the role of prisons as incubators of extremism. It is also one of the tweets now being used in evidence against Nabeel in a new case the government has brought against him. The latest case charges Nabeel, president of the award-winning Bahrain Center for Human Rights, with “publishing and broadcasting false news that undermines the prestige of the state”.
Nabeel’s attempts to assert his right and the rights of others to free expression are being systematically – and brutally – thwarted by a government that acts with the continued support of allies such as the UK. The King of Bahrain sat next to Queen Elizabeth at her 90th birthday party in March: how much clearer indication could the UK possibly give of its support for a country that continues to torture citizens who disagree with the regime? A country that this weekend ordered the 15-day detention of a poet, and which last year stripped 72 people of their citizenship – including journalists and bloggers – for simply voicing their criticism of the current regime. A country that uses a retweet of solidarity from a UK-based organisation as evidence that Nabeel broadcasts “false news and articles”.
It is not false to suggest Nabeel – and many others – are subjected to continued judicial harassment. Nabeel spent two years in jail between 2012 and 2014 on spurious charges including writing offensive tweets and taking part in illegal protests. He left the country shortly afterwards to raise international awareness of the country’s plight and days after his return was again arrested. Though charged and later pardoned, he remained subject to a travel ban and now faces jail once more.
I met Nabeel during his visit to the UK in August 2014. I had been in my job for just two months and was keen to know how organisations like ours could support individuals like Nabeel, who was awarded the Index on Censorship Freedom of Expression Award in 2012. The meeting remains one of the defining moments of my time at Index: one that has helped to guide my thinking over the past 24 months. “Be there,” was Nabeel’s message. Be there not just when high-profile cases flare up and the eye of the media flickers over a country. Be there when a person fades from the world’s gaze. Be there to remind others that the person still matters.
Nabeel’s comments informed our decision last year to redevelop our Freedom of Expression Awards as a fellowship – offering more sustained support to winners and reaffirming our commitment to be there for the long haul. In recognition of this influence, Nabeel was one of our judges for this year’s awards. Because of the travel ban, imposed after last year’s conviction, he could not join us in person, but he was very much present.
Nabeel is due to stand trial on 5 September — after yet another delay announced on 2 August — over his twitter comments (and, by extension, ours). The kind of comments made every day in the United Kingdom, United States, France, Germany and elsewhere to hold governments to account or simply to vent anger: tweets about conditions in jail, about judicial processes, about the state of the country. In these countries, such comments are – and should be – considered part of the democratic process. In Bahrain, a country that the UK government repeatedly insists is on the “right path” to democracy, such comments land you in jail, solitary confinement, threatened with violence.
And when Bahrain starts using the support of international organisations like ours as evidence with which to condemn human rights activists, it is incumbent on governments like the UK to speak publicly. These governments need to be there, not just for the regimes they support, but in defence of the human rights they themselves claim to uphold and also for the people whose rights are being denied.