On 4 June this year the Bahrain High Criminal Court of Appeal upheld a five-year sentence handed out to the prominent human rights defender Nabeel Rajab for tweets he had made that were critical of the government. Nabeel Rajab is my friend. He was arrested in June 2016 and held on remand for more than a year and a half, much of that time in solitary confinement. In February of this year he was brought to trial, swiftly found guilty and handed the five-year term.
Nabeel had already spent several years in and out of prison for his persistent refusal to cease his peaceful criticism of the extensive human rights abuses of the Bahraini regime. The abuses have been well documented: the killing of peaceful activists on the streets and in detention; torture while in detention in order to obtain forced confessions; death sentences based on false confessions; the denial of legal representation for the detained; the arrest of leading political opposition figures and the outlawing of political societies; the shuttering of the only independent news outlet Al-Wasat; the harassment of journalists.
A year ago I wrote about how angry I was that our government remained silent in the face of the persecution being inflicted on Nabeel. Here is what I said then:
“I rage at the injustice and at my own impotence. But surely if enough of us speak up, we can raise a shout and we can demand from our government it speak in defence of a good man who is emblematic of all those unjustly jailed in Bahrain and throughout the region.”
Now one year later I feel terribly sad and even more impotent. Our government has done nothing. I feel sad for Nabeel’s brave, brave wife Summaya and for his children. His son Adam has courageously carried on the struggle to keep his father’s name in our consciences and in our memories. I feel sad for a young man who has had to give so much of his life to the just cause of fighting to free his father.
I feel very deeply saddened for my friend Nabeel. I met him for the first time in 2007 when I was making a programme for BBC Radio 4. He told us about a fishing village outside the capital Manama. The villagers were angry that a member of the ruling Al-Khalifa family had summarily taken land from them to build a seaside villa.
Nabeel wanted to show us the resentment of young Bahrainis and the deep frustration they were feeling at the injustices being inflicted upon them by the royal family. But he also wanted us to understand that Bahrainis from across sectarian and economic divides shared a desire for gradual reform and for that reform to come it must only be through peaceful means and dialogue. Neither then, nor since, has he ever called for regime change.
In my trips back to Bahrain, I stayed in touch with Nabeel. In a climate where government officials often refused to speak to members of the foreign press like me, he always made himself available. It was more than just his natural politeness, it was a useful strategy given the obfuscation and obtuseness of the regime.
Always, always he stressed the importance of non-violent protest. He is a proud Bahraini and was the first to tell me that in 1970, prior to independence from Britain, the vast majority of citizens rejected the idea that their country should be incorporated into Iran. Proud and stubborn.
Nabeel once told me that the authorities had offered him his release with only one condition: that he cease and desist from criticising the regime. He told me those were not terms he could ever contemplate accepting.
Something of an Anglophile – on one occasion he delighted in taking me to the British Club in Manama – he feels deeply that the cause upon which he has embarked and to which he has sacrificed so much is deeply rooted in British values of free speech, free media and open democracy.
How badly we have betrayed those values in allowing the regime to parade Nabeel before an utterly politicised and compromised court system, to face specious charges without anything near adequate legal support and to be given lengthy prison terms over and over again.
He understood that to continue on the journey for freedom and democratic reform would inevitably mean more jail time. He had a small bag packed by the door, waiting either for the midnight raid to take him away or for the morning phone call instructing him to present himself at the office of the public prosecutor.
In all the time I have known my friend he has never once doubted the cause nor that the path to justice must be through peaceful means. He fears that constant harassment and ongoing repression by the state will lead only towards more violence. As he told me once:
“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 advocate 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.”
I have been told that Nabeel is being held in a tiny cell, three metres by three metres, with five other inmates. It is cramped, filthy and insect-infested. They are locked into the cell for 23 hours a day. My friend’s health is suffering but the authorities are refusing to move him to hospital for treatment.
Human decency cries out that he should be released. But I know my friend and he would say that his own suffering is not the point. What is important, I can hear Nabeel saying, is his country and the fate and future of its citizens. He is a true Bahraini patriot.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.