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Nabeel Rajab on his sentence and the state of free expression in Bahrain

This statement was originally published on freemedia.at on 23 January 2015.

Leading Bahraini human rights defender Nabeel Rajab is waiting for a call from his lawyer to know when he will need to appear in court to appeal the verdict that left him facing a six-month prison sentence for comments posted on Twitter.

A court convicted Rajab of insulting public institutions after he suggested that individuals from Bahrain's security forces had joined the Islamic State group and that security institutions in his country served as an “ideological incubator” for extremism.

The tweet was the “excuse” authorities found to try to silence him, Rajab maintained in an interview with the International Press Institute (IPI) this week.

Rajab remains banned from travelling and he was ordered to pay a fine of 200 BHD (approx. €470) in order to avoid imprisonment while his appeal remains pending. He was arrested on Oct. 1 after being summoned for questioning upon his return to Manama, Bahrain's capitol, following an advocacy trip in which he denounced human rights abuses in his country before the U.N. Human Rights Council and the European Parliament.

IPI Digital Media Coordinator Javier Luque spoke with Rajab hours after the court announced his sentence to talk about the state of freedom of expression in Bahrain.

IPI: How did you feel when you were told the verdict?

Rajab: I chose not to be in court. My lawyers went on my behalf. I was worried that when I was sentenced I would be arrested at the same moment in the court, so I stayed at home with my family, my brothers and sisters, my wife and children. We were all together at home when I received the news. It was very disappointing because it is one more chapter out of the many times I have been targeted because of my tweets or my activism in peaceful protests. I've spent a great part of my time in jail for the last few years because of my criticism against the government. However, it is a price I am willing to pay for the freedom I am fighting for.

IPI: This is the second time that you are facing jail time in the last three years; do you think that the Bahraini government is trying to make an example of you?

Rajab: Yes, I think that one reason is that detaining me is a way to pass a message to all human rights defenders in Bahrain and the region. So I think this last sentence is a message for myself because I have been advocating in an international level in the past months, travelling around the world, talking about human rights in Bahrain and in the Gulf, making appearances in the United Nations and the European Parliament. I upset the government as I was exposing the human rights violations in this part of world.

So part of the sentence is to disconnect me from the international community, because since I came from Europe five months ago, I am banned from travelling and I don't know for how many months and years this ban will be upheld against me. So this is a punishment for me and for the whole human rights community in the region.

IPI: Is the government trying to suffocate any kind of critical voice within the country since the outbreak of the Arab Spring?

Rajab: They are suffocating people and targeting everybody who dares to criticise the government. Those who dare to criticise the government or the king [Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa] in a tweet or a post on Facebook are being sentenced for a long period of time. They are targeting people on social media as it represents the only area where we have the freedom to express ourselves. In fact, social media platforms are the only room where you can see the real public opinion. Authorities aim to mislead the outside world, showing on traditional media that everything is alright. However, users on social media are embarrassing them when exposing their repressive approach to democracy and they want to stop all kind of activism in the digital sphere.

IPI: What's the state of freedom of speech in the traditional media?

Rajab: We don't have an independent media, as all the media is state-run or owned by people close to the government. The only tool that is not controlled by the state is social media. For example, [on Jan. 20] everyone was speaking on social media about my case, so you could only follow my story on social media. None of the traditional newspapers ran my story. So you have a real public opinion on social media and a fake public opinion on the traditional media.

This is why they are targeting users on these digital platforms, as the government can't highjack the social media platforms. Unfortunately, I think this is a struggle that will continue over the coming months and years.

IPI: Experts have talked how the Bahraini government reportedly hired hackers and trollers to highjack social media buzz during the Arab Spring.

Rajab: Well, my government tries to mislead the public opinion and create a fake account of the events. They are hiring IT experts, hackers and trollers who create many social media accounts to defame human rights activists and create a fake public opinion. They are also monitoring electronic communications among people.

IPI: Do you think that the backlash following the killings of Charlie Hebdo's staff has improved in any way the state of press freedom in Bahrain?

Rajab: The regimes in this part of the world are the ones who funded Islamic fundamentalism, but at the same time they are trying to show themselves as moderate liberals who received the support from western governments because of mutual interests, hypocrisy or double standards, I don't know.

The same government that suppresses their own nation rallied in the protests on the streets of Paris showing their support to freedom of expression. This was a mere cosmetic campaign. I think that the killers in Paris are also partially the creation of the repressive regimes in our part of the world.

IPI: You actually highlighted this in the tweet that brought you before the court that sentenced you to six months in prison.

Rajab: I was highlighting the tolerance that our government has towards extremism while showing intolerance against the people who are defending democracy and human rights activists in the country. All the people that are brought before court are human rights defenders and critics against the government, but not the real terrorists. They seem immune. At least to my knowledge, I haven't seen a single terrorist being brought before court in Bahrain under the terrorist law, but I have seen many democrats and human rights defenders being brought before court under the law on terrorism.

What Western countries fail to understand is that when Bahrain says they are fighting against terrorism, they truly mean “fighting against democrats”, as the government categorises us as terrorists. What I was trying to say is that there is an attack against the democrats at the same time that there is tolerance towards the real terrorists.

IPI: How can the international community, and international organisations such as IPI, help you?

Rajab: My case is politically motivated; they only use this tweet as an excuse. So I count on the international community, on the human rights groups and the groups fighting for press freedom. In fact, I was really amazed by the international reaction on social media and to see the amount of people who stood in solidarity with me. Maybe I am a high profile man; my case came to light but there many others like me who we don't know and they've spent years and years behind bars because they showed some criticism against the Bahrain government. Therefore, I invite the international community to take a closer [look at] Bahrain, because if they don't do it, [no one] will do it.

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