UN panel calls on Bahrain to release activist Nabeel Rajab


DUBAI: A special United Nations panel is urging Bahrain to immediately release imprisoned activist Nabeel Rajab, describing him as the victim of government-sponsored “persecution” for his political views in the island kingdom.

The statement by the UN’s Working Group on Arbitrary Detention comes as Rajab is serving a five-year prison sentence for tweets he sent, a case widely criticized internationally as the kingdom’s government continues a crackdown on dissent. He faces further time in prison on other charges similarly denounced abroad.

“Mr. Rajab’s political views and convictions are clearly at the center of the present case and that the authorities have displayed an attitude towards him that can only be characterized as discriminatory,” the panel said. “He has been the target of persecution, including deprivation of liberty, for many years and there is no other explanation for this except that he is exercising his right to express such views and convictions.”

Bahrain, home to the US Navy’s 5th Fleet and a British naval base, disputed the UN panel’s findings. It described Rajab’s court hearings as “independent, transparent and attended by numerous international observers.”

“As in all countries, there is a distinct difference between legitimate criticism of government and attempts to incite public disorder,” the government said in a statement, without elaborating.

Rajab has faced years of imprisonment and a government campaign coordinated against him for backing the island’s 2011 Arab Spring protests. Then, the island’s Shiite majority and others demanded more political freedoms from the kingdom’s ruling Sunni family, the Al Khalifa.

Bahrain ultimately put down the demonstrations, relying on reinforcements from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

Rajab was sentenced in August 2012 to three years in prison for allegedly fomenting clashes between police and protesters, a case similarly criticized by the UN panel. At the time, he was already serving a three-month sentence for posting anti-government comments on Twitter. He was released in May 2014 after serving two years, but was detained again over his comments on Twitter.

Bahrain’s King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa pardoned Rajab in July 2015 over concerns about his health after the activist served some three months in prison.

But Rajab was again arrested in June 2016 over his tweets alleging abuse at Bahrain’s Jaw prison and criticizing civilian casualties in the Yemen war waged by a Saudi-led coalition, of which Bahrain is a member. Prosecutors also investigated the 53-year-old activist for letters he wrote while imprisoned that were later published by newspapers Le Monde and The New York Times.