It’s a big week for jailed Bahraini human rights defender Nabeel Rajab. On Sunday 19 November his trial resumes where, if convicted, he could be sentenced to up to 15 years for tweeting criticism of the government and the war in Yemen. On Wednesday he is expecting an appeal verdict in another case for which he was sentenced in July 2017 to two years in jail for stating the truth that NGOs and journalists are denied access to Bahrain.
He’s been detained since 13 June 2016, and spent more than six months of this year ill in a military hospital. The authoritites’ recent treatment of him bodes ominously. His family tell me it’s been more than a month since they were last allowed to see him. They say that inside Jau Prison his situation “is just getting worse - he faces punishment if he talks to any other prisoner, and is not allowed any reading materials.”
Rajab is one of the world’s most prominent human rights defenders, the 2011 winner of the prestigious Ion Ratiu Democracy Award. The U.S. State Department has called for his release, as have 25 cross-party U.K. Members of Parliament. Members of the European Parliament and of the U.S. Congress have repeatedly raised his case. Congressman James McGovern (D-MA) has advocated in support of Rajab for years, and in June 2017 delivered a speech in Congress protesting his detention.
The best outcome this week would be for Rajab to be released, the charges dropped against him, and for a process to begin to let all the other peaceful dissidents in Bahrain’s prisons to go free. But it’s unlikely to happen, and the kingdom’s ruling family is likely to continue to mismanage the political situation, just as it has mishandled the country’s economy.
It could all have been so different. Six years ago this Wednesday, on 23 November 2011, Bahrain’s ruling family triumvirate - the king, the king’s uncle (the prime minister), and the king’s son (the crown prince) - accepted the findings of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry. The report detailed the widespread abuse by their security forces earlier that year. It was damning confirmation of what we and other local and international human rights organizations had documented for months - the police and military had killed protestors, tortured hundreds, and jailed thousands more as the government cracked down violently on largely peaceful calls for democracy.
I was one of those in the Sakhir Palace that day the report was presented and the king promised us all he was going to make real reforms. I went from the event to see Rajab at his home in Bani Jamra. We spoke for hours about the report, about what might happen next, whether American and other international pressure could help bring about significant change, if the ruling family really meant what had been said earlier that day, about the prospects of Abdulhadi Al Khawaja and other leading peaceful dissidents being released from prison.
Turns out the king was lying about making changes, and the U.S. lost its appetite to press for reform. Al Khawaja and many others tortured and jailed in 2011 are still in prison. Since then the political opposition has been crushed, leading human rights defenders either put in jail or forced into exile. The state has started executing people again. Torturers at the National Security Agency, given a break towards the end of 2011, are back.
The third week of November 2011 should have been a turning point, what Bahrain’s king called the start of a “new page in history.” It wasn’t. The same week, six years on, Bahrain’s government could make this a big moment by releasing Rajab.