Dear Minister Ali bin Mohammed Al-Rumaih, We, the undersigned, write to you regarding the case of human rights defender Nabeel Rajab and ask you to consider the request of Mr Rajab’s lawyers to suspend his current sentence.
Mr Rajab is currently serving a five-year sentence related to tweets criticising alleged torture at Jau prison and the actions of the Saudi-led military coalition in Yemen’s civil war.
In recent months, Mr Rajab’s legal team has appealed to the courts to suspend the sentence against him or to convert it to a custodial sentence, or a form of community service, but all their efforts were rejected. A hearing requesting that the Court overturn previous decisions to uphold the sentence will take place on 17 September 2019.
We strongly urge you to support this request for the sentences to be suspended. In particular, we are concerned that Mr Rajab is not being treated according to international standards for prisoners. Mr Rajab is currently being held in a cell in Jau Prison with nine other prisoners who were convicted for prostitution offences. This is contrary to Rule 11c of the United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners (Nelson Mandela Rules) which states: “The different categories of prisoners shall be kept in separate institutions or parts of institutions taking account of their sex, age, criminal record, the legal reason for their detention and the necessities of their treatment.”
Mr Rajab is a highly regarded human rights defender. He is the President of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights (BCHR), Founding Director of GCHR, Deputy Secretary General of FIDH and a member of the Human Rights Watch Middle East and North Africa Advisory Committee. His case has been raised repeatedly by the international community. In 2018, the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention called for Mr Rajab’s release and said the convictions were unlawful and violated his freedom of expression. Earlier this month, UK parliamentarians said the UK should be willing to use sanctions against countries that violate international standards on media freedom.
Given this, we urge you to suspend Mr Rajab’s sentence. Yours sincerely,
Index on Censorship
Gulf Center for Human Rights (GCHR)
Bahrain Center for Human Rights (BCHR)
Americans for Democracy & Human Rights in Bahrain (ADHRB)
European Center for Democracy & Human Rights (ECDHR)
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Human rights activist Nabeel Rajab who is still in prison in Bahrain for criticising the government
Human rights defender Moosa Mohammed climbed on to the roof of the Bahraini embassy in London on July 26 to protest the execution of two men in Bahrain who had been tortured in prison and given the death penalty. His banner read: “I am risking my life to save two men about to be executed in the next few hours. Boris Johnson act now!”
He intended to stay on the roof until the UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson contacted the King of Bahrain to stop the executions that were due to take place on the morning of 28 July. However, as a Channel 4 News video shows, at least two people appeared on the roof and someone started beating him with a stick, and according to the protester, they threatened to kill him and throw him down the stairwell. Since the embassy is a private building, video reports appear to confirm that these two men must be embassy staff.
Diplomatic premises in the UK may not be entered by the UK police unless ordered under the consent of the ambassador or head of mission, even though they are considered part of UK territory as outlined in the Diplomatic Privileges Act. The embassy has said the claims were “unfounded” and said it was reacting to a perceived terrorism threat. But what happened on the night of the protest was clearly extremely serious as it caused UK police officers to take a highly unusual step and break down the door of the embassy to force entry to the building.
A spokesperson for the Metropolitan Police told The Independent newspaper that police were called following reports of a man on the roof. According to the spokesperson, officers and London Fire Brigade attended and “hearing a disturbance on the roof, officers entered the building and detained the man”. But a police officer confirms on the video that they were “forcing entry”.
If Bahrain’s embassy staff members feel confident enough to act like this on UK territory, what is happening inside Bahrain as the rest of the world chooses not to watch?
Freedom of expression in Bahrain continues to be under severe threat. Joy Hyvarinen, head of advocacy at Index on Censorship said: “The people most at risk are those who choose to freely express themselves, whether they be journalists, activists or photographers, but ordinary citizens can face repercussions if they follow, retweet, comment or like a Twitter or Facebook post”.
The Bahraini government has used its 2002 Press Law to restrict the rights of the media to the point where a journalist can face up to five years’ imprisonment for publishing criticism of Islam or the King, inciting actions that undermine state security, or advocating a change in government. The government also uses counterterrorism legislation to limit freedom of expression.
One of the most prominent activists and defenders of freedom of expression in Bahrain is Index on Censorship Freedom of Expression Award winner Nabeel Rajab, who was convicted under these laws and has been detained since June 2016. He was first charged and given a two-year prison sentence for TV interviews he gave in 2015 and 2016, on the grounds of “disseminating false news, statements and rumours about the internal situation of the kingdom that would undermine its prestige and status”. He was later sentenced to an additional five years on charges of “spreading false rumours in time of war,” “insulting public authorities,” and “insulting a foreign country” for tweets that were critical of torture in Bahraini prisons and the war in Yemen.
Rajab’s case is only one of many human rights violations taking place in Bahrain, where people are unjustly convicted and arbitrarily detained. Many prisoners are subjected to ill-treatment and torture is not uncommon. Earlier this month, groups called on Amal Clooney, the United Kingdom’s Special Envoy on Media Freedom, urging her to pressure the UK to act on Bahrain’s suppression of freedom of expression. After the incident at the Bahrain embassy in London, will the UK government finally take a tougher approach to Bahrain or will it continue to make deals with a government with so little regard for human rights?
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Dear Amal Clooney,
We, the undersigned Bahraini and international non-governmental organisations, are writing to express our deep concern about the intensifying clampdown on freedom of expression in Bahrain since 2011, especially over the past two years. As the United Kingdom’s Special Envoy on Media Freedom, we hope that you can urge the UK government to abide by its stated commitment to protect journalists and promote free media and to press its ally, Bahrain, to respect freedom of expression and freedom of the press.
Freedom of Expression and Press Freedom restricted
The right to freedom of expression and press freedom are severely restricted in Bahrain and journalists, human rights defenders and activists are targeted for doing their human rights and journalism work. According to the Committee to Protect Journalist (CPJ), six journalists are currently imprisoned in connection with their work. In addition, Reporters without Borders (RSF) has documented seven journalists who have had their citizenship revoked since 2011. Bahrain now sits 167th out of 180 countries in RSF’s Press Freedom Index for 2019, one place lower than in 2018.
The repression intensified in 2017, when the only independent newspaper, Al-Wasat, was forcibly closed down and its employees dismissed. That year, the Ministry of Information Affairs effectively blocked the license renewal of several journalists working for foreign news agencies. Photojournalists and reporters for the Associated Press, Agence France-Presse and a cameraman for Reuters were all denied license renewal. Nazeeha Saeed, award winning correspondent for Radio Monte Carlo Doualiya and France24 was convicted and fined for working for international media outlets without a license. Those outlets, along with a coalition of press-freedom watchdogs, wrote to the King of Bahrain in April 2017 highlighting their concerns.
In Bahrain, criticising the King could result in conviction and a seven-year sentence as the government does not tolerate any form of dissent. Prominent human rights defender, Nabeel Rajab is serving a five-year sentence for using Twitter to expose torture in Bahrain’s Jau Prison and to criticise Saudi Arabia’s war on Yemen. He was also charged for publishing an Op-ed in the New York Times. Opposition activist and high profile blogger, Dr Alduljalil Al-Singace, was jailed for life in 2011, when the government renewed its crackdown on peaceful dissent. In 2017, activist and blogger Najah Yusuf was sexually assaulted by the authorities and sentenced to three years in prison, partly for criticising the Bahrain Grand Prix on social media. Former Al-Wasat employee, Mahmood Al-Jazeeri, was sentenced to 15 years’ imprisonment and stripped of his citizenship. The UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention (WGAD) declared him arbitrarily detained. Similarly, award-winning photojournalists Ahmed Humaidan and Sayed Ahmed Al-Mousawi continue to languish in prison with the latter also stripped of his citizenship. Photojournalist Hassan Qambar was sentenced to more than 100 years in prison over a “range of absurd charges” according to RSF, namely his coverage of local protests.
We are dismayed that the Bahraini authorities are once again amending anti-terror and cybercrime laws to further criminalise political dissent and civil society activism. The situation is only worsening, following the government’s recent declaration that it intends to crackdown further on critical social media accounts and posts.
On 22 May 2019, the Ministry of Interior (MoI) accused Bahraini journalist Adel Marzooq of cybercrime for analysing politics in the region on Twitter. On 30 May 2019, Bahrain’s MoI announced that “those who follow inciting accounts that promote sedition and circulate their posts will be held legally accountable.” Two days later, a MoI official elaborated that “countering inciting social media accounts that promote sedition and threaten social fabric and civil peace was a national duty and part of the community partnership to protect the security and safety of the nation.”
Social media giant Twitter expressed concern about the Bahraini government’s recent declaration. In a tweet posted on 5 June 2019, Twitter stated that the implementation of such measures would “pose a significant risk to free expression and journalism” in the country. Twitter also provided advice to individuals who wished to view posts from specific accounts without having to follow them, in order to avoid the scrutiny of the Bahraini authorities.
Our hope is that Bahrain’s allies will be inspired by this principled action and follow suit in publicly condemning the growing crackdown on dissent. Regrettably, the UK is yet to take a strong public stance on the matter and instead provides its Gulf ally with unconditional political support, to the detriment of the Bahraini people.
Bahrain Ambassador to UK: Sheikh Fawaz bin Mohammad Al Khalifa
During the time that the Ambassador of the Kingdom of Bahrain to the UK, Sheikh Fawaz bin Mohammad Al Khalifa, has been in post, a number of smear campaigns targeting human rights defenders, activists, journalists and critics have been launched from the embassy in London.
Sheikh Fawaz is a member of the Bahraini royal family and was the president of the Information Affairs Authority (IAA) during the Arab spring, a time when the government systematically cracked down on human rights and civil society. The IAA regulates the state’s media channels and websites, including Bahrain TV and the Bahrain News Agency. The organisation was responsible for shutting down Al-Wasat, the only independent newspaper, leading to the censorship of the press and the deportation of foreign-national journalists and spreading hate speech through IAA-controlled TV stations. In 2009, the year before Sheikh Fawaz’s IAA presidency, Bahrain stood 119th in RSF’s Press Freedom Index. By the time his presidency ended in 2012, Bahrain had fallen to 165th place, attesting to Sheikh Fawaz’s devastating record and legacy on press freedom.
The Bahraini Embassy in London has escalated smear campaigns against human rights defender Nabeel Rajab and blogger Najah Yusuf, to whom they attributed tweets posted eight months after her conviction. The Embassy also justified the prosecution of journalist Nazeeha Saeed, blaming her for not renewing her own credentials as a foreign correspondent.
Despite this evidence being publicly available, the FCO responded to concerns raised about Sheikh Fawaz by a Member of Parliament by asserting that it “thoroughly reviews each State’s appointee as Head of Mission.”
It is evident that the British government prioritises its strategic relations with Bahrain over the right to freedom of expression and press freedom. While trade and security agreements made without a strong human rights component may appear expedient on the surface, in the long term a foreign policy that ignores human rights will likely encourage greater repression which in turn will undermine the UK’s international reputation.
In December 2018 you said that: “states should repeal criminal sanctions in laws that target speech like sedition, blasphemy and defamation, and they should narrow the scope of other laws that can easily be used to silence critical speech.” However, as long as Bahrain’s closest allies refuse to use their leverage to pursue these noble goals, they will remain impossible to achieve in the country.
In light of the above, we hope that you can use your position and access to the UK authorities to urge them to:
Prevail on their Bahraini counterparts to release prisoners of conscience, including journalists, photojournalists and human rights defenders imprisoned solely for voicing their peaceful opinions, including specifically: Mahmoud Al-Jaziri; Ahmed Humaidan; Sayed Ahmed Al-Mosawi; Hassan Qambar; Najah Yusuf; Dr Abduljalil Al-Singace and Nabeel Rajab;
Urge the Bahraini government to rescind the administrative ban on the activities of the independent newspaper, Al-Wasat;
Urge the Bahraini government to allow visits of the Special Rapporteurs on Freedom of Expression and Freedom of Assembly to the country; and
Call on the Bahraini government to lift the vague and overly broad cybercrime laws imposed to silence the right to freedom of expression and end legislation criminalising human rights, including criticism of the King.
We would particularly welcome any public statements you can make in support of freedom of expression in Bahrain.
Thank you for your time and we look forward to hearing from you soon.
Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy (BIRD)
Americans for Democracy & Human Rights in Bahrain (ADHRB)
Bahrain Centre for Human Rights (BCHR)
European Centre for Democracy and Human Rights (ECDHR)