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Bahraini rights activist not at liberty to "speak his mind or leave the country"

This statement was originally published on hrw.org on 15 December 2015.

An arbitrary travel ban is preventing a prominent rights activist from leaving Bahrain, Human Rights Watch said today. The ban against Nabeel Rajab is based on charges that violate his right to free expression. Prosecutors should immediately drop the charges and lift the travel ban.

Rajab's lawyers told Human Rights Watch that because prosecutors have not formally closed the investigation into these charges, Rajab could be arrested at any time and face a criminal trial. Rajab's lawyers have filed appeals to the travel ban with the investigating prosecutor on September 2, 2015, the attorney general on September 16, and the office of the Public Prosecution on October 1. After receiving no responses, the lawyers submitted a second appeal to the attorney general on December 3.

“Nabeel Rajab is not at liberty to speak his mind or to leave the country,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East and North Africa director. “This travel ban against Rajab is just the latest unlawful effort by Bahrain's government to keep a critic quiet.”

A public prosecutor imposed the travel ban on Rajab on July 13, the day Bahrain's King Hamad-Bin-Isa-Al-Khalifa pardoned and released him for “offending national institutions” by criticizing the government on social media. The travel ban is based on two speech-related charges that led to his arrest on April 2, which prosecutors have not dropped.

One of the outstanding charges is for insulting a statutory body, under article 216 of Bahrain's penal code, based on his social media comments about the alleged torture of detainees in Jaw Prison. The second accuses him of “disseminating false rumours in times of war,” under article 133, based on social media posts criticizing Saudi-led coalition air strikes in Yemen. Violations of articles 133 and 216 carry maximum sentences of 10 and three years in prison, respectively.

Rajab posted numerous tweets about the violence in Jaw Prison. On March 17, Rajab tweeted that he had met with a recently released inmate. The photographs accompanying the tweet “will tell you how they were treated,” he wrote. They show abrasions and contusions on the man's back and injuries to his right arm.

In the weeks before his arrest, Rajab also posted numerous tweets purporting to show the effect of Saudi Arabian air-strikes in Yemen. On March 26, the Interior Ministry cautioned against criticism of the government's decision to send eight fighter jets to take part in air-strikes in Yemen as part of a Saudi Arabia-led, US-backed coalition against Houthi forces. It warned against “any attempt to exploit the situation through division or sedition, or issuance of statements against the approach Bahrain has taken.” The ministry “would take appropriate steps against individuals that put the safety and security of the country at risk,” the statement said.

The United Nations Human Rights Committee, the body of independent experts that monitors state compliance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which Bahrain has ratified, issued an authoritative interpretation on the scope of the right to freedom of expression and opinion. In its General Comment 34, the committee stated that, “In circumstances of public debate concerning public figures in the political domain and public institutions, the value placed by the Covenant upon uninhibited expression is particularly high.” It also stated that “states parties should not prohibit criticism of institutions, such as the army or the administration.”

Article 12(3) of the covenant states that the right of any person to leave their country, provided for in article 12(2), can be restricted to protect “national security, public order (ordre public), public health or morals or the rights and freedoms of others,” or if the restriction is “consistent with the other rights recognized in the present Covenant.” Given that the charges on which the travel ban is based manifestly violate Rajab's right to free expression under article 19 of the convention, the travel ban violates his right to free movement, and Bahraini authorities should lift it immediately, Human Rights Watch said.

Rajab is a member of the Human Rights Watch Middle East and North Africa advisory committee.

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