Nabeel Rajab leading a march in April 2012
Whilst much of the Bahrain regime's ongoing repression is relatively free from international scrutiny, Thursday's sentencing of leading human rights activist Nabeel Rajab to three years --- on three separate charges of instigating and participating in "illegal gatherings" --- will not go unnoticed. In recent weeks, many international NGOs and even 19 members of the US Congress have called for the immediate release from detention of Rajab, who is also serving a three-month sentence for his messages on Twitter.
So why would the Bahraini regime, which has been desperately seeking to convince the international community that it is committed to reform, hand down the lengthy sentence, an act bound to create questions about its commitment?
1) The Regime is Not Committed to Reform
Beyond the sentences, the charges against Rajab --- crimes of Tweeting and protesting --- point to the lack of freedom of speech and freedom to demonstrate in Bahrain. The opposition are routinely denied permits to march. Currently any gathering of more than five citizens is deemed illegal.
Meanwhile, there are daily acts of violence against citizens; children are being arrested for protesting; police were last month accused by rights groups of "torturing detainees at secret sites"; there are ongoing allegations of beatings and mistreatment of detainees; tear gas has been "weaponised" and is used indiscriminately and excessively against civilians; security forces injure protesters daily with shotguns loaded with birdshot pellets; underground clinics are needed to treat injured protesters because the health system is unsafe; and the justice system seems arbitrary at best, a lottery at worst.
There are constant adjournments of appeals in cases where citizens were sentenced by a military court last year, often - as found by the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry --- following confessions obtained under duress. These include the 13 leading activists and leaders, considered prisoners of conscience by Amnesty International, whose appeal verdict was adjourned on Tuesday for three weeks, with the judge giving no reason for his decision.
2) The Regime Believes It Can Get Away With It
The Bahrain Center for Human Rights, headed by Rajb, said the sentence was a consequence of the regime being "emboldened by international silence".
The weak critiques, coupled with gentle praise and arms sales, of the US and Britain has given the regime reason to think it can act without sanction. When 28 countries in June wrote a joint statement to the UN Human Rights Council condemning "ongoing violations", the US and UK did not sign.
A fortnight ago, giving testimony at a Congressional hearing, US Assistant Secretary of State Michael Posner gave little indication that Washington was putting pressure on the regime. Whilst he "urged" Bahrain to "drop charges against all persons accused of offenses involving political expression and freedom of assembly", Posner described Rajab's case as "a bit more complicated on its facts". He added only that "we have been very clear that there needs to be a due process of law". This is some way from January when the State Department expressed concern and even visited Rajab at his home, after he was attacked by police at a protest in the capital Manama.
At the end of June, Britain's Minster of State at the Foreign Office, Lord Howell, reportedly complimented the regime's progress and said the revolution that began in Bahrain on 14 February 2011 should not be linked to the Arab Spring. The Foreign Office's quarterly report on Bahrain, published on 30 June, paid scant attention to the many reported violations by Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and others. It did so despite an "urgent appeal to the international community and United Nations to assume their responsibility in protecting people of Bahrain" made in early July by the BCHR, as well as a statement issued by opposition societies describing the situation as an "unannounced martial law with the regime escalating its crackdown". It overlooked the regime's defiance in May, when the Minister of Interior threatened legal action against NGOs and opposition figures who went to Geneva for the United Nations Human Rights Council's Universal Periodic Review on Bahrain
3) The Regime Wants to Test the International Waters
However, the regime will pay particular attention to public and private channels from key states, especially the US and Britain but also France (whom it has been recently lobbying) and other European countries who have become more vocal in their criticism of Bahrain's failure to demonstrate significant reforms.
European Union High Representative Catherine Ashton was quick to respond to the verdict and "noted with concern" Rajab's sentencing. US State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland gave a more complex response, calling for "dialogue" whilst having to acknowledge the reality that "actions like this sentencing today only serve to further divide Bahraini society". Nuland was also keen to separate out the 3-year sentence for protesting from the 3-month sentence for tweeting. Speaking to the former, she said that State was "deeply troubled" by the verdict and that "from the beginning we thought that this case shouldn’t have gone forward".
However, asked if the US was calling for Nabeel's release, Nuland wavered, saying, "I don’t think that we are, now that the sentence has come down". Pushed further, Nuland replied, "Obviously, we think that this should be vacated" (ie, for Nabeel to be acquitted on appeal).
At the time of writing, the British Government has not responded to the verdict.
Without strong and --- more importantly --- sustained critique and pressure from the major Western powers, the Bahrain regime will assume it has a tacit green light. And if that is not entirely true, the authorities have been canny with the conviction: Nabeel was given three different sentences, each of one year and each of which he is appealing. Any pressure from the US and UK still gives the regime the option of release or reduced sentences at appeal.
4) The Regime Wants to Cut Off the Opposition from the Outside World
Rajab is a crucial in-country link for governments, NGOs, journalists and activists outside Bahrain, acting both as a source of information on human rights violations and as a guide and figurehead for visitors. His high profile also gives him an international platform and access to media which others lack.
Living in a country ranked 173rd out of 179 for press freedom, Rajab is also a strong proponent of social media, with more than 168,000 followers on Twitter. In prison, where he has been since masked security men took him from his home on 9 July, he is unable to do any of these things.
5) The Regime Wants to Throttle the Work of Human Rights Defenders in Bahrain
Yesterday's sentence is just the latest step in a campaign of intimidation and harassment of human rights activists who work to expose and raise awareness of regime wrongs. Over recent months, the regime has stepped up its targeting of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights.
On 6 January, Rajab was beaten by police after he headed a peaceful protest in the capital Manama. He was then detained and arrested multiple times, including on the anniversary of the 14 February protests, the start of the mass uprising. In May, returning from Lebanon, he was arrested at Bahrain airport and detained for three weeks.
Rajab's family have also suffered as a consequence of his work. In an open letter posted this month, his wife Sumaya wrote of attacks on their home with tear gas and harassment of their children.
Alongside this targeting of Rajab, leading human rights defender Zainab Alkhawaja, whose sister Maryam is acting President of the BCHR in exile, has faced multiple arrests, imprisonment, and attacks. Last month, she was shot directly in the leg with a tear gas canister, fracturing the bone and curtailing her work documenting abuses. On 2 August, as she stood on crutches, she was arrested while staging a solitary protest on a roundabout and detained under investigation for allegedly tearing a picture of King Hamad back in May. On Tuesday, Alkhawaja's court hearing was adjourned until 28 August.
Said Yousif Almuhafda, head of monitoring for BCHR, has also been arrested and beaten on several occasions. On Wednesday, at a checkpoint in front of his two young daughters, Said was arrested and allegedly "punched twice in the head" after refusing to call Rajab a "whore".
6) The Regime Wants to Intimidate Protesters and Keep the Capital Quiet
Protesting in Bahrain is already risking, with even the most peaceful demonstration subject to police attack, as a march without prior permission gives security forces "legal" justification to break it up and arrest those involved. Handing a harsh sentence to Rajab for organising and participating in protests, the regime is sending a strong signal that others --- whose arrests will not make international headlines --- will be treated even more severely.
Rajab, while staunchly advocating non-violence, has been a loud and consistent voice calling for peaceful protests to move out of the villages, where they are largely unseen, and into Manama, where their visibility and apply more pressure. That is why one of his sentences is for his calling for a protest in Manama: the regime fears disruption in the capital.
7) The Regime is Reassuring "Hardliners" that They are Not Being Ignored
Rajab has many powerful enemies who have long sought to put him behind bars. One is Colonel Adel Flaifel, a former State Security government official who is close to the Prime Minister and who is alleged by many to have overseen and even participated in the abuse of prisoners in Bahrain during the 1980s and 1990s.
In December 2011, Fleifel tweeted a death threat at Nabeel (and Mohammed Al-Maskati, President of the Bahrain Youth Society for Human Rights): ”Maskati and Nabeel Rajab your future death and hell". Last year he founded a "Military Society" which has been accused of involvement in violent clashes with Shi'a citizens. In June, Fleifel was one of the residents of Muharraq who filed a complaint against Nabeel for tweeting:
“[Prime Minister] Khalifa: Leave the al-Muharraq alleyways, their sheikhs and their elderly. Everyone knows that you have no popularity there; and if it was not for their need for money, they would not have come out to welcome you --- when will you bow out?”
Rajab is serving a three-month sentence for that tweet, yet for many regime supporters that is not long enough. Moreover, some of them are unsettled by the current talk of reform and dialogue with the opposition. Thursday's prison term offered then some appeasement. It can also potentially be read as the Prime Minister showing his hand, perhaps to stamp out any chance of a new push for "dialogue" by pressuring the opposition society Al Wefaq to retract it recent offer and blaming it for the collapse of talks.
There is also rising anti-American sentiment among loyalists, with circulation of conspiracy theories that the US is fiscally and logistically supporting the opposition, particularly Rajab and the BCHR. Even the Commander in Chief of the Bahrain military believes that the US is backing a "coup plot" against the ruling AlKhalifa family.
8) The Regime is Trying to Redefine "Human Rights"
In his speech on Tuesday, King Hamad claimed that Bahrain had "laid down the pillars of democracy and human rights". On the same day, the regime announced the establishment of the "High Co-Ordinating Committee for Human Rights".
Chaired by Dr Salah Ali, Minister for Human Rights Affairs, the Committee appears to be a formal body created to deflect accusations against the regime's human rights record, whilst also controlling outside the access of NGOs to Bahrain. It is also tasked with following up the UN Universal Periodic Review in May, when 66 countries made a series of strong --- and often strongly-worded --- recommendations for human rights reform. Last week Dr Ali, in a meeting with with Bahrain's Ambassadors to the US and UK, discuss a visit to both countries "to highlight Bahrain's progress in the legal field with regard to human rights".
BCHR has noted with concern, however, that the regime said only it would "take [recommendations] all into consideration", suggesting that officials would adopt stalling tactics. That criticism for some may be an essential corrective to the regime's attempts to obfuscate its human rights record; for Bahrain's leaders, it is a thorn in the side.
9) Gulf States are Silencing Human Rights Activists.
Bahrain is not the only Gulf state whose ruling monarchy is concerned with the work of human rights defenders. Recent weeks have seen a steady crackdown, especially in the UAE where 51 activists have been arrested, an act supported by Bahrain.
Rajab is the co-founder and director of the Gulf Center for Human Rights, which has been established to ensure that human rights violations in Saudi Arabia, Oman, Kuwait are documented and reported. Moreover, his general, empowering message of universal human rights and democracy could threaten and unsettle Gulf monarchies.