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Nabeel Rajab: 'Prison did not defeat me, I defeated prison'

With over 300,000 followers on Twitter, Bahraini rights defender Nabeel Rajab's activism online has undeniably made him a voice of influence in Bahrain and the region at large. Unfortunately, his persistence in exposing state violations online has also led to several run-ins with the law, the most recent of which has landed him in solitary confinement.

Flickr/Conor McCabe

In an interview with Frontline Defenders wherein he described his experiences in prison, Nabeel Rajab said:

I have a fight to continue and a struggle to do for my people. Prison did not defeat me, I defeated prison.

It is partly thanks to leaders like Nabeel Rajab and Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja that the Bahraini uprising of 2011 is known today as one of the very few pro-democracy movements in the Middle East and North Africa to consistently stand by the ideals of non-violent resistance.

Despite a demonstrated willingness by the Bahraini regime to quell criticism of its policies at all costs, protesters – under the guidance and leadership of a few opposition figures – continue to peacefully and steadfastly call for democratic reforms.

Rajab, a building contractor by trade and one such figure, has made the struggle for human rights and equality his business since the 1990s, when the first wave of mass protests brought together leftists, liberals, and Islamists against state injustice.

In 2000, together with other individuals involved in Bahrain's activist circles, Rajab founded the Bahrain Human Rights Society, one of the first human rights organisations in the island nation. Since then, he has helped found and run two well-respected and independent civil society groups; the Bahrain Center for Human Rights and the Gulf Center for Human Rights. Both groups are members of the IFEX network.

As Twitter soared in popularity during the Arab uprisings in 2011, Rajab took his activism and his human rights work online. With over 300,000 followers on the social media platform, Rajab's online words have been influential in Bahrain and across the region. They've also been the basis for several run-ins with the law.

In May 2012, he was charged with "insulting a statutory body via Twitter” and detained for three weeks. In early July 2012, he was charged with insulting the prime minister in a tweet and sentenced to three months in jail. On 16 August 2012, he was sentenced to three years in prison for illegal political activities involving the use of social networking sites. He was released on 24 May 2014, after serving two full years in prison.

His most recent brush with the judiciary took place on 13 June 2016. He was detained on charges of “spreading false information and rumors” for tweeting and re-tweeting statements that criticized the actions of Bahrain's forces in Yemen, where they joined the Saudi-led coalition in fighting the Shi'ite Houthi rebels. Rajab has been kept in solitary confinement since his arrest and may face more than ten years in prison if convicted.

While admired and supported internationally, inside Bahrain Rajab is considered by some a divisive public figure. In order to rally support for its brutal crackdown on the opposition, the Bahraini regime and media outlets towing the official line launched a smear campaign against many of the leaders of the movement, Rajab included. They framed the issue at hand in sectarian terms and accused the opposition of working with Iran to impose Shiite rule on the Bahraini nation and its people. Rajab himself has been accused by many pro-government individuals of being a Shiite spy bent on destroying the national identity of Bahrain.

Knowing how easily he can be discredited along sectarian lines, Rajab is careful not to employ sectarian discourse in his work. He campaigns for and stands in solidarity with any and all communities suffering injustice. In 2003, Rajab founded one of the first migrant workers protection committees in the Gulf Cooperation Council countries. He still draws attention to the exceptional vulnerability of migrant workers and the exploitation of their communities by companies and government representatives across the GCC.

On 12 July 2016, Rajab was set to face the judiciary yet again in a trial that has been condemned by local and international civil society organisations as well as the European Parliament. The Court adjourned the hearing and postponed the case, ordering his continued detention.

Last Updated: 12 July 2016

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