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Top Bahraini activist under arrest

Tamsin Walker
October 3, 2014

Just four months after completing a two-year prison term for his role in Bahrain's 2011 pro-democracy protests, human rights defender Nabeel Rajab is being held in custody. He is accused of publishing offensive tweets.

Bahrain Menschenrechts-Aktivist Nabil Radschab
Human rights advocate Nabeel Rajab has been re-arrested following a months-long advocacy tour in Europe.Image: picture-alliance/dpa

Leading Bahraini activist Nabeel Rajab had barely arrived home after a two-month human rights advocacy tour in Europe, when he received a call instructing him to immediately appear before the Criminal Investigation Directorate (CID) in Manama.

Replying that he would not go unless summoned in writing, he bought himself nothing more than a tiny window of time. Within hours, three police chiefs and civilian officers were at his home, serving the official documents that led him to the CID building infamous for the interrogations conducted within its walls.

That was Wednesday afternoon, and although he has since been moved, he is set to be detained for seven days. For now.

A statement released by the Ministry of Interior said Rajab had been "summoned by the General Directorate of Anti-corruption and Economic and Electronic Security" in connection with "tweets posted on his Twitter account that denigrated government institutions."

Double standards

The tweet in question was posted on Sunday night, and read: "many #Bahrain men who joined #terrorism & #ISIS came from security institutions and those institutions were the first ideological incubator."

Quite apart from the issue of freedom of speech, Said Yousif Almuhafdah, Vice President of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights (BCHR) says "the tweet" as grounds for arrest is hypocrisy given that the government in Manama released its own statement distancing itself from IS fighters who previously worked for the country's security services.

But in a way that is an afterthought, because far from relating to any "derogatory tweets," he is convinced Rajab's arrest is the result of his recent whirlwind tour of Europe. During his two months on the continent, he met with scores of foreign ministry officials, addressed the House of Lords in London, and appealed to the EU, the European Parliament and the United Nations Human Rights Council.

Clamping down

He also gave interviews and appeared on several television networks, talking about his time behind bars and the human rights situation in the country that saw fit to put him there. He was aware at the time, that his lobbying might be punished upon his return home, and confided in Almuhafdah the night before his arrest that he sensed it was coming.

The worry now, the BCHR activist said, is what happens once he has served his seven days in detention. "They want to keep him in jail as much as they can," he told DW. "They want to stop him from exposing human rights abuses around the world." Particularly, he added, in the run-up to elections on 22nd November.

EINSCHRÄNKUNG Tränengas in Bahrain
Said Yousif Almuhafdah calls the government hypocritical for claiming the tweet is grounds for Rajab's arrest.Image: Said Yousif Almuhafdah

"Right now they are harshly targeting all activists in Bahrain," he continued. "Just this week they sentenced nine of them to life in prison, and another 20 to between three and 15 years."

At the end of last month, Justice Minister, Shaikh Khalid bin Ali Al-Khalifa, warned against calls to boycott the elections and said any such violations would be "dealt with according to their nature."

And that, stresses Almuhafdah, implies arrest.

A shot in the foot

Brian Dooley, Human Rights First expert on the Gulf region, says even given the Bahraini authorities' "addiction" to imprisoning leading activists, the detention of Nabeel Rajab is baffling.

"Few things really shock me in terms of the government's actions, but this does," he said.

Citing the wave of bad publicity following the recent arrest of human rights defender Maryam Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, the focus on the country in light the upcoming ballot, and the need for Bahrain to prove itself as a respectable, dependable ally in the fight against Islamic State, he describes the arrest of Rajab as a shot in the leadership's foot.

"Just when the country really needs to polish its international image, it does something backward like this."

And the arrest is making waves. It has sparked outrage in the activist community, but has also elicited tweets and letters from European officials. Among them, Stavros Lambrinidis, European Union Special Representative (EUSR) for Human Rights, who wrote that the EU was "closely monitoring the situation".

Teargas in Bahrain
Bahrain's security forces have frequently targeted protesters with tear gas, leading some ordinary residents to don gas masks.Image: Ahmed AlFardan

What next?

Dooley says it is hard to predict what the authorities will do next week, but believes they will either realize they have made a tactical mistake and let Rajab go, test the water by releasing him but not dropping the charges, or extend his term in custody.

"They might decide that although it will cause them some pain to put him back in prison for a couple of years, it is better than having him roaming around the UN and London and Washington and all those other places where he can cause them trouble."

But even if that were to happen, past and very recent experience has shown, that far from removing Nabeel Rajab from the collective consciousness, two years in prison served to increase his following and international standing.