THE BLOG
01/12/2015 01:15 pm ET Updated Mar 14, 2015

Hussain Jawad Case Presents Bahrain With Key Test on Speech

Yesterday, Bahrain's foreign minister took part in a Paris rally in protest of the recent killings at the Charlie Hebdo offices and elsewhere. Meanwhile, his government continues to harass journalists and other peaceful critics, including human rights defender Hussain Jawad, who is charged with free speech-related offenses and faces court tomorrow.

Chair of the European-Bahraini Organisation for Human Rights (EBOHR), Jawad faces the usual charges levied against human rights activists -- insulting the monarchy and inciting hatred against the regime. It's an important case not only because Jawad is a prominent member of civil society in Bahrain, but also because his arrest occurred when he went to a police station to complain about his being targeted by a newspaper that is loyal to the government.

It has been almost four years since the huge Bahrain uprising and the subsequent violent government crackdown when dozens of people were killed, hundreds tortured, and thousands arrested by Bahraini authorities. Since then, the government has assured the international community that it has learned painful, valuable lessons, and that it has changed.

The Bahraini regime claims it has changed in several ways over the last few years, including in how to complain about human rights abuses. It has set up an Ombudsman's Office, which it is keen to cite to foreign diplomats as evidence of real reform. Yet when Jawad tried to make a formal complaint at a police station on November 23, 2013, he was arrested and detained for 46 days. Jawad's charges relate to a speech he gave in Manama in November 2013 peacefully criticizing the Bahraini authorities.

Karim Fakhrawi serves as an example to Bahrainis of why they should be wary of reporting human rights abuses. In April 2011, as documented by Human Rights First, prominent businessman and publisher Fakhrawi went to Sanabis police station to complain that his family's home had been ransacked the night before. "He was told to come back 30 minutes later," his family told Human Rights First. "He did, and was arrested by a man wearing a mask." They never saw him alive again, because he was tortured to death in custody.

The November 2011 government-commissioned Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI) report detailed Fakhrawi's death, and pointed to a culture of impunity in the security forces. Jawad was arrested two years to the day after the BICI report's release, and says he went to the police station to report a media campaign of defamation against him and other human rights activists.

Jawad is one of a several prominent human rights defenders being prosecuted on politically-motivated charges related to peacefully criticizing the government. Others include Zainab Al Khawaja, Mohammed al Maskati, and Nabeel Rajab, who is due a verdict next Tuesday, January 20, for insulting government ministries on Twitter. Opposition leader Ali Salman was also arrested a few weeks ago for peacefully criticizing the government and remains in custody.

It's hard for leading international human rights groups like Human Rights First to verify the veracity of Bahrain's claims on reform as we -- like the U.N. Special Rapporteur of Torture -- are not allowed into the country to assess progress, but embassies sometimes send trial observers to political cases.

"I'd like the U.S. government to send a representative to my hearings and to state if, in their view, the process met international legal standards," Jawad told Human Rights First.

If Bahrain really wants to show it values freedom of expression, as well as sending its foreign minister to join the Paris march it will stop targeting its peaceful dissidents and drop the charges against Jawad, the other human rights defenders, and everyone else jailed in Bahrain for expressing their opinions.