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The makings of a hero: Arresting Nabeel Rajab

October 3, 2014 at 11:47 am

Less than 24 hours after returning to Bahrain for the first time since he finished a two-year prison sentence in May and travelled abroad to continue his human rights work, Nabeel Rajab finds himself back behind bars.

To be fair, the government of Bahrain, repressive as it is, doesn’t want to make a literal martyr out of Rajab. That would be too costly for them. But in the Western, metaphorical sense of the word, they’re publicly prosecuting him because he’s a nuisance to them. The problem is, every time they put him in jail, he gets more famous, his case becomes more celebrated, and they’re one step away from turning him into the closest thing to a 21st Century Nelson Mandela.

When Stephen Colbert asked Kenneth Roth of Human Rights Watch back in January who would was the best candidate to be the next Mandela so he could “get in on the ground floor of the next moral outrage”, he mentioned Nabeel Rajab along with Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo. In May, Rajab left prison after serving two years for “encouraging protests”, and immediately went to the international community for support, speaking to the media, rights groups, and last week at the UN Human Rights Council.

On returning to Bahrain this week, he was immediately summoned to the electronic crimes unit of the Criminal Investigation Department where he was interrogated and arrested over Tweets which they deemed insulting to the Ministry of the Interior.

Bahrain, you see, doesn’t just have the medieval “lèse-majesté” laws against insulting the monarch which you also get in Thailand, it is also a crime to insult other government institutions, because they apparently have feelings too. Bahrain’s King is so thin-skinned when it comes to people saying mean things about him that even the state institutions which he employs to repress those who would dare insult him are protected by laws criminalising free expression.

Of course, it’s all just an excuse to lock activists up. When Maryam Al-Khawaja, another prominent activist, returned to Bahrain at the end of August, she was arrested and is being tried for insulting the King by calling for members of the ruling family to face justice for their role in repressing dissent.

Of the handful of security officers prosecuted for murdering protesters during the 2011 uprising in Bahrain, only a tiny number have been convicted. The two officers prosecuted for torturing Ali Saqer to death in custody were given 10 years, later reduced to two on appeal, because they didn’t have the “intent to kill”. Just to get this straight then; in Bahrain you can murder protesters and get less jail time than for hurting the feelings of a non-sentient public institution.

The problem with Nabeel is that he’s quite a good communicator of hard truths. When he tells the media that “Bahrain is buying Britain’s silence with arms sales”, or that the Sunni/Shia conflict is a convenient divide and conquer tactic for dictators like the Bahrainis, Saudis, or Syria’s Al-Assad so that people don’t unite to overthrow their oppressors, it’s hard to ignore the truths contained in his words. He’s courageous, passionate and charismatic. He wears a keffiyeh all the time. He’s the kind of person who gets out of prison and goes straight back to doing the same thing that got him in trouble in the first place, but even louder.

It seems that the specific thing that resulted in Nabeel’s imprisonment this time was a this time was a Tweet noting the irony that many Bahraini ISIS recruits are ex-security personnel:

“Many #Bahrain men who joined #terrorism & #ISIL came from security institutions and those institutions were the first ideological incubator”

Considering Bahrain has just been taking part in the US bombing campaign against ISIS, it seems that someone in the government was insulted to learn that the people they employ to brutalise their own population might get the idea to go and do the same thing to the people of Iraq and Syria.

For a long time now it’s been known in Bahrain that extremist Sunni elements in the country have been travelling to fight for Islamist groups against Al-Assad, and some Bahraini ISIS cadres recently released a YouTube video calling on Sunnis in Bahrain to overthrow their “tyrant” government.

It appears that the regime just doesn’t want to take any responsibility for this, just as they have been failing to take responsibility for the political mess in Bahrain, preferring always to blame it on Iran, or the opposition groups they allege to be linked somehow to the Iranian government. They’re like an alcoholic who won’t take the first step and admit they’ve got a drinking problem. “We’re reforming!”, they protest; but the evidence just isn’t there. Torture and political discrimination continue and both sides seem to have given up on the National Dialogue reconciliation talks.

The Bahraini government has been making much of its assistance in bombing ISIS, despite it having a very limited air force. Perhaps they got tired of just buying all the US and UK weapons we are desperate to sell them and wanted to actually blow someone up for a change. Maybe it’s a useful distraction from Bahrain’s internal problems: the upcoming meaningless elections in November are due to be boycotted by the opposition again, making them even more meaningless and leaving any political solutions a distant possibility.

Nabeel is being punished, again, for alerting people to a hard truth; that the brutalisation of Bahrainis, Sunni and Shia, whether the victims or the perpetrators of violence, is radicalising both sides. Bahrain has become a Stanford Prison Experiment, where one side is given the uniforms, and the other is put in prison rags. The violence they do to each other reduces the humanity of both sides, and blinds them both to their real persecutor, the regime itself.

Al-Khalifa’s monarchy has turned Bahraini society against itself in order to maintain its unjust system of control. But in making political martyrs of people like Nabeel, they only make him a more sympathetic figure, and alert more people to the truths he is trying to expose.

John Lubbock is the Research and Advocacy Officer for the Bahrain Center for Human Rights

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.