On July 10 the Bahraini Court sentenced the prominent Human Rights Defender and the President of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights (BCHR) Nabeel Rajab to two years in prison in absentia. The Court convicted him on charges that stem solely from his peaceful activism, including for advocating human rights on TV. Rajab was charged with “publishing and broadcasting false news that undermines the prestige of the state” in three televised interviews in 2015 and 2016. The trial and verdict is the culmination of more than a year of unlawful pre-trial detention under harsh conditions that have led to severe health issues necessitating hospitalisation of Rajab for several months.

“Debating human rights on TV is not a crime and putting our president, a peaceful activist behind bars, is just outrageous” said the BCHR today. “The Bahraini government is using the Court to silence him.”

Nabeel Rajab did not attend today’s trial due to his health issues.

His prosecution was marked by serious violations of his fair trial rights, including the right to communicate freely with his counsel and the right to he heard in person and international observers were not allowed to attend the proceedings.

Today’s sentence was based on a charge under Article 134 of the Bahraini Penal Code which gives up to 3 years of prison for spreading false information and malicious rumors about domestic matters with the aim of discrediting and adversely affecting the State prestige. More precisely, Rajab was commenting on Bahrain's interdiction on foreign press.

Rajab is still awaiting his trial in a parallel case on tweets and retweets regarding the war in Yemen where he faces imprisonment of up to 15 years if convicted. For an overview of the proceedings in the two cases, see here.

Background

The international community has on several occasions called for the release of Nabeel Rajab. Most recently, on 27 June 2017, Pier Antonio Panzeri, Chair of European Parliament’s Subcommittee on Human Rights, issued a statement calling for the release of Nabeel Rajab. Panzeri said, “Rajab’s detention violates his right to freedom of expression. I call on the Bahraini authorities to grant lawyers and family members access to Nabeel Rajab, to drop all charges against him and to free him immediately.”

In May 2017, the UN Committee against torture in its concluding observations on Bahrain called for the release of Rajab and also the US Department of State has called for his release. Not too speak of leading NGOs. However, so far all of these demands have been to no avail.

The proceedings in the two cases against Rajab are a display of a blatant and continuous violation of the fundamental rights to a fair trial and to not to be subjected to torture/ ill-treatment. Rights which Bahrain has explicitly agreed to abide by when ratifying numerous international conventions, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CAT).

With regard to the issue of torture/ill-treatment, Rajab has been in solitary confinement for most parts of his detention which has at the time of writing gone on for 392 days and he has only had very limited contact with his family, with times where the contact has been completely cut off. According to the Committee against Torture, “[e]xcessive use of solitary confinement constitutes cruel, inhuman or degrading punishment or, depending on the circumstances, torture (arts. 2, 11-13 and 16)”. Moreover, Rajab has developed multiple health issues following his pre-trial detention. In April, he underwent surgery for a bleeding ulcer, and was returned to prison one day after the surgery. Three days after his surgery, Rajab was rushed to the hospital due to  a serious infection he developed post-surgery in detention. He has since then been hospitalised, too weak to participate in court hearings resulting in a further postponement of the two trials against him.

With regard to the issue of lack of a fair trial, on 3 July, Rajab had his last hearing in the case related to the press interviews. Neither him, nor his lawyers attended the trial however. The lawyers have boycotted the trial since 14 June, in protest of the court’s decision to hold the hearings in Rajab’s absence: Despite Rajab’s doctor’s statement that he cannot be discharged, the judge went ahead with the hearing, allegedly without his lawyers’ defence plea being heard by the court. Following the hearing, Rajab has had very limited - at times no - access to his lawyers.

The breaches of Rajab’s fundamental right to a fair trial are manifold, including: 1) at times Rajab was held incommunicado; 2) He has at crucial times been denied access to his lawyer (most recently up to the hearing on 3 July). This constitutes a violation of Article 14 of the ICCPR which requires States to ensure access to full access to legal representation and adequate time to prepare the defence; and 3) Hearings have been held in his - medically excused - absence and he has, thus, been deprived of his right to defend himself during the hearings.

The BCHR are seriously concerned by today's verdict and the denial of Nabeel Rajab’s right to a fair trial. We reiterate the call on the Bahraini authorities to immediately release Nabeel Rajab and all other human rights defenders and to guarantee in all circumstances that they are able to carry out their legitimate human rights activities without fear of reprisals and free of all restrictions including judicial harassment.